Monday, May 23, 2005

Star Wars: Was It Worth the Wait?

Editor's Note: I have attempted to keep this review short on spoilers. There are some minor ones, but you'll be warned when they appear.

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few months, you know that the sixth and final installment of the Star Wars movies is now in theaters. You also know that Episode III: Revenge of the Sith shattered multiple box-office records this weekend. But if you haven't seen it, it's probably because you're afraid it's going to be subpar like The Phantom Menace. Maybe you even fear it will be merely passable as Attack of the Clones was. That's understandable, which is why I've written this review. Before I opine, let me give you some background as to why I should even care to do so.

Since I was about 9, I've been a huge Star Wars fan. Did I read the books? Yes. Did I play the video games? Oh yeah. Did I have the toys? Absolutely. Heck, I even dressed up as Darth Vader for Halloween...two years in a row. My fandom became much less obvious as I grew older, partially out of necessity; as I recall, my interest in girls and my interest in the Force had an inverse relationship. But I never stopped loving the movies. I've seen the original trilogy upwards of 7 times and was so desperate to make The Phantom Menace a good movie that I've seen it at least 4 times. Short of going to see a Star Wars film dressed as a Stormtrooper, I'm as hardcore a fan as you'll find.

So now the part you've been wondering about...is the movie good? Quite simply, yes. A review in the New York Times called it the best of the four movies that George Lucas directed (which includes A New Hope). There are a few minor gripes - for example, I still don't know when C-3PO got the golden paint job that appears in this and in the original trilogy - but most of the actual storyline ties up loose ends and brings everything full-circle in an epic manner. The CGI effects are far more convincing here than in the last two movies, and Jar Jar Binks is mercifully relegated to a wordless close-up near the end. Sadly, the Gungan does not take a lightsaber to the head at any point. Anyway, I concur with the Times (that may never happen again - Ed.), but I emphasize a small caveat: Sith is still not superior to The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi.

One of the things that made the original movies so great was the chemistry between the cast members, which felt more forced during A New Hope. Chemistry is spotty at times in Sith, but when it's good, it's very good. Hayden Christensen is a better actor here than he was in the last movie, but he still isn't as believable as he should be with Natalie Portman. (Possible spoilers ahead!) Despite her many other acting flaws, Portman's freak-out over Anakin towards the end of the film is heartbreaking and adds emotional realism to the movie. Christensen, on the other hand, seems more at home with Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) than he is with any other character. It is during their scenes together that they do their best acting, particularly when Palpatine is attempting to bring a conflicted Anakin to the dark side. (Spoilers over) Frank Oz, Ewan McGregor, and Samuel L. Jackson turn in other noteworthy performances.

As for the editing, the pacing in this movie may be the best of the six. Just when things start to slow down a bit at various points, we get thrown into another battle sequence without it feeling forced. This is the one area where Sith overpowers Empire and Jedi. Every scene serves a purpose, so pay close attention or you'll miss key portions. The other two movies would slow down for a time in an effort to build toward the good stuff; Sith just keeps charging ahead even when it's drawing you farther into the storyline. I can honestly say this to be one of the only epics I've watched that never lets up. And if you think things are happening fast in the beginning, just wait until the last hour.

So what about the politics? Much ado has been made about how Revenge of the Sith draws some unusual parallels to the current world situation. In fact, some reviewers have been saying that the movie makes a sneaky comparison between the Sith and the Bush administration. Lucas fanned the political flames by waxing philosophically to reporters about perceived similarities at the Cannes Film Festival, which is where the premiere was held. (Viewers at Cannes supposedly drew a quick comparison between one of Anakin's lines - "If you're not with me, then you're my enemy" - and a Bush quote used in last year's Fahrenheit 9/11.)

Now that I've seen the film, I can tell you with confidence: this is BS. You will only draw parallels between the movie and current politics if you come in wishing to do so. You know, if you really do think President Bush is the Dark Lord of the Sith, then it doesn't take Revenge of the Sith to convince you of that. This does not bode well for the media's movie critics, who seem all too willing to join Bush and evil together as one. There are three key points in the film that have been heavily politicized; if you don't wish to hear some minor spoilers from the movie, skip down to the next full (non-numbered) paragraph.

1.) During one of the more engaging action sequences, Obi-Wan loses his lightsaber and has to use a blaster rifle on his opponent. After blasting that character into oblivion, Obi-Wan looks at the rifle and says to himself, "So uncivilized." AP movie writer Christy Lemire (famous for panning James Bond flicks due to their perceived chauvinism) observed that as proof that this was Lucas' "anti-war movie". In reality, this shows her ignorance of the source material; Jedi consider the use of any weapon besides a lightsaber to be crude and unnecessary.

2.) When Palpatine creates the Galactic Empire, Padme remarks, "This is how liberty dies...to thunderous applause." Reviewers have been interpreting this as a dig on everything from the PATRIOT Act to the last election, but it seems more like a timeless political lesson. Remember: Hitler was absolutely loved and fanatically supported by the Germans for a long time, due in part to his speaking ability and incredible charisma. Also remember that Bush is no Hitler, although some on the far left want to convince you otherwise.

3.) Before Anakin and Obi-Wan have their climactic duel, Anakin makes the previously mentioned remark that flipped out Cannes attendees. Obi-Wan retorts, "Only a Sith deals in absolutes." The strongest argument for a political undercurrent can be made here, but if you don't know about the perceived connection, you simply see Anakin's point of view at its clearest. By this point in the movie, he no longer trusts anyone except Darth Sidious. (And I do mean anyone; I don't wish to elaborate, but Anakin becomes murderously confused during this scene.)

You might be wondering why George Lucas would be willing to make the political parallels for reporters if the movie was not really political. There's an easy answer to that question: controversy is the best PR. Even if he does see a comparison, other comments to reporters indicate that he didn't originally design the movie to criticize Bush.

Verdict: The acting is mostly better than before, the politics are not anything like major media outlets have made them out to be, the kid stuff is at a minimum, and even this hardcore fan was pleased. I don't even need to tell you that John Williams' orchestral score is excellent, although it feels unusually inspired for this final Star Wars episode. Say what you will about George Lucas, but he sure does know how to make entertaining movies. My best advice is that you go in with low expectations. Do not expect a future Oscar winner. Do not expect the next Citizen Kane. Do not expect the dawn of a new era in film-making. Just expect to be entertained. You will be entertained. If you watch the same movie I watched, you'll have a blast.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of 4)

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