Caution: Anyone who has not seen Episodes 4, 5, or 6 may find spoilers in the following review. Anyone? Anyone?
This is it, says Lucas, the last and final episode that he will ever do in the "Star Wars" saga, ever and forever. The finish, the end of the line. Maybe. I also recall his saying years ago that he planned to do nine episodes in the series. Maybe he'll pass the next three over to one of his buddies--Kershner, Spielberg, Zemeckis, Coppola, or Scorsese. Heck, maybe he'll let their old mentor, Roger Corman, direct the next one; he could do worse.
Or maybe "Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith" really is the grand finale. We'll see. In the meantime, the question is whether Episode III is any better than the two films that preceded it in this newest prequel trilogy. In my opinion, yes, it is the best of the last three. Nevertheless, that's not saying as much as I'd like, given that "The Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones" were mostly eye candy. They were good, fun eye candy, to be sure, but they were largely eye candy all the same.
"Revenge of the Sith" is much darker, much edgier, much moodier, and much grimmer than Episodes I and II, eliminating the juvenile atmosphere of "Phantom Menace" and the gooey romance and fretful histrionics of "Clones." In any case, there are the usual drawbacks we could all see coming a mile (or maybe several light years) away. If I seem to be more critical in this review than I was in my critiques of Episodes I or II, there are several reasons for my reactions: (1) Lucas had twenty-eight years to prepare for this latest segment; (2) Lucas had the biggest possible budget and the greatest possible technical facilities at his disposal for its creation; and (3) Lucas used the rationalization for the weaknesses in the prequel's first two episodes that he was saving up the best stuff for last--for the big finish. Well, the finish is here, and we had a right to expect a lot. In fact, a lot more.
Before I get to my cavils, though, let me comment on some of the things I believe Lucas got right this time around, because the film really is a fitting climax in many ways to the Episodes I-III trilogy. "Revenge of the Sith" is, as I've said, clearly the best of the prequel trio, and for me it's as good as "Return of the Jedi" in overall entertainment value. But maybe this is largely because there are no Ewoks involved, no singing Teddy bears.
Anyway, as everyone knows by now, "Sith" is the turning point in the series: the chapter wherein the once sweet and innocent Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) succumbs to the Dark Side of the Force and becomes the most-wicked man in the universe, newly named "Darth Vader" by the corrupt Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) in a passage that reminded me of the pledge scene from "Animal House"; and the chapter where the eons-old democracy known as the Republic is overthrown and the evil, totalitarian Empire assumes control of the galaxy. Then, just as everything is going to hell, Anakin's wife Padme (Natalie Portman) gives birth to twins, Luke and Leia, who will grow up to be the "New Hope" for the future of the universe.
So, what is the best part of this final installment? Without a doubt, among the actors it's Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan, who seems not only among the most competent players in the film but also one of the few not to take things too seriously. With his new beard, he even begins to resemble Alec Guinness, which makes for a nice continuity with the next three episodes of the old trilogy. There is a minor age discrepancy, though: McGregor was in his early thirties when he filmed his part in Episode III, and in the story fewer than twenty years pass before we see Obi-Wan again in Episode IV. Yet when Guinness takes over, he's in his mid sixties. I guess you age fast out there on a lonely planet.
The second best actor? Yoda. I know it doesn't say a lot when one of the best actors in a film is a CGI animated character, but that's the way it is. He's still a kick-ass little guy with some of the best scenes in the movie. And there's Ian McDiarmid as the Chancellor, the Wife-O-Meter's favorite player in the story. Watch and listen to him closely, and you'll see a most eloquent actor at work.
To his credit, Hayden Christensen isn't as whiney this time around and not nearly so annoying as he was in the previous episode. Be that as it may, he doesn't look to me like the person I anticipated seeing under the Darth Vader mask. I expected someone more grandiose, more imposing; someone more like...James Earl Jones. Oh, well, at least Christensen is less stiff this time around and seems to have found his natural rhythm. On the other hand, Natalie Portman seems entirely sympathetic, and as small as her role may be, she is effective.
Next, despite a lot of clutter, the graphics are stunning. If one were to judge the movie on the splendor of its CGI alone, it would get an A for effort. I think, too, that on DVD the graphics are easier on the eye than in a theater, especially without a theater's THX sound system blaring so loud. Now, if only the action had slowed down for more than a few minutes at a time, we might have been able to enjoy the wonders of the imagery even more.
John Williams' musical score borrows heavily from the first five "Star Wars" movies and adds some intriguing new material as well to produce one of the most important and satisfying parts of the film. When the opening titles come on and one hears that familiar "Star Wars" theme, one can't help finding a smile on one's face. Underscoring the battles, the music is equally brilliant, adding more excitement than the sometimes repetitious action would have otherwise admitted.
Unfortunately, "Revenge of the Sith" also has its drawbacks, if not quite so many of them as "The Phantom Menace" or "Attack of the Clones." Possibly of greatest importance, there is still no sense of any sort of family in this prequel trilogy as we experienced in the first three movies. Episodes IV-VI had Luke, Han, Leia, Obi-Wan, C-3PO, and R2-D2 to root for. They became kindred spirits as we proceeded to love and admire them. There we found Luke pursuing his "Hero's Journey"; Han the rogue knight errant; Leia the princess in distress; Obi-Wan the wise, old father figure, the Merlin or Gandalf; and the androids doing their Laurel-and-Hardy act. These characters were all endearing, not only earning our respect but figures to be emulated. Heck, even old Darth Vader was admirable in his sheer, unwavering evilness (at least until the end, where his deathbed repentance never moved me).
But who have we had in this set of prequels to admire who isn't killed off in short order? The main character, Anakin Skywalker, we know from the outset will become the most-wicked man in the universe, and there is no way anyone can change that. It's the disadvantage of knowing exactly what's going to happen in the series, surely; there is zero suspense involved. Worse, it's the handicap of not having anyone to cheer and not having anything to applaud. There are always the heroic Obi-Wan and Yoda, true, but basically the movie is a tragedy about Anakin Skywalker, and we know this from the beginning: Tragedies always end tragically. A viewer's single reassurance in the entire picture is knowing that eventually Luke and Leia will grow up and avenge the Emperor and their father. In the meantime, it doesn't make the prequels any the more lovable; nor, I suppose, should they be. Still, this one's even colder than I figured on.
Second, I found the story offering a dissatisfying end to the supposedly wise, eternally spiritual, and enormously powerful Jedi Council, the Round Table Knights who enforced the peace in the galaxy for millennia. We remember from the original "Star Wars" back in 1977 that Obi-Wan told Luke the Jedis were hunted down one by one, so, of course, we expect their demise. It is, however, the manner of their passing that discomforts me. Without giving too much away, I'd have to say I was disappointed by how most of the Jedi warriors were so easily ambushed and destroyed, especially Master Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), in the final chaos of the crumbling Republic.
Third, while I love a good light-saber fight, the ones in "Revenge of the Sith" seem to go on forever. I mean, the dang things are endless. The movie begins with a battle and ends with a battle and contains what seems like two more hours of battles in between. Nor is the action always as thrilling as it should be, since there is so much of it. It tires fast. Two words of dialogue and then on to another duel. More is not always better. The brain reels.
Fourth, speaking of dialogue, the stuff still doesn't come off with any degree of realism. Maybe Lucas was purposely trying to have his characters talk in monosyllabic clichés to imitate old-time Saturday-morning movie serials, I'm not sure. If so, he succeeded beyond his wildest expectations.
Fifth, there's just too much going on, period. Lucas's penchant for intercutting different parts of the story, back and forth, back and forth, not only disrupts our concentration, it can actually start giving one a headache. The fact that the first time I saw the movie in a theater the THX sound system was cranked up to the threshold of pain didn't help matters. Worse, the whole business of Anakin turning to the Dark Side, supposedly the major focus of the film, sometimes gets lost in all the peripheral detail of war, conflict, rescues, battles, and multitudinous edits. Then, when Anakin's turning point does come, about halfway through the narrative, it's not nearly as convincing as it should be. Anakin is like, no, no, I can't, I would never turn to the Dark Side; then, it's oh, OK. And it's a done deal. Humph.
Sixth, although the newest movie's imagery is better-looking than ever, it seems more cluttered than ever, too. The more Lucas learns to manipulate objects on the screen via his never-ending banks of computers, the more objects he seems to want to include in every shot. It's as though he's tried to top himself with each succeeding "Star Wars" movie by showing how much more technically adept he has become. I found this latest canvas far too filled with minutiae to be anything other than more fancy wrapping paper. I admit it is often fun to watch and beautifully rendered, but it is no longer art, and it can become tiresome quickly.
Seventh, it appears that Lucas still cannot help adding cutesy touches to his films. Here, they are not so obvious or so cloying as they were in Episode I, but they remain, nonetheless. C-3PO is all aflutter most of the time. R2-D2 is not only cuddly, he's more dashing and resourceful than ever before. The Wookies let out a Tarzan yell as they swing down on an enemy ship. And one of the Commanders is named Cody, Commando Cody undoubtedly being one of Lucas's boyhood heroes from old movie serials. Fortunately, Jar-Jar Binks shows up only for a cameo appearance at the end of the film.
Then, there is the matter of the picture quality. Lucas continues to be a big supporter of digital video, and while the process has admittedly improved over the last few years, it remains imperfect. Digital video still hasn't the resolution of conventional movie film, and at the theater where I first saw this latest "Star Wars" showed the digital image from regular film stock. While the definition was about 100% better in this theater than in the one where I'd seen Episode II, which looked totally blurred and out-of-focus to me, there remain in the new effort the same flat backgrounds and the same slightly hazy, glassy appearance. I suspect this has something to do with the digital image's relative lack of grain as well as its lack of ultimate resolution. (Any small visible grain in the picture is undoubtedly the result of the digital-to-film-stock transfer.) Certainly, you could say that shooting practically everything against a blue screen, with CGI backgrounds and effects added later, had a lot to do with the flat aspect as well. In something like "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," also filmed almost entirely against blue screens, the flatness of the image and its monotone appearance worked well with its 1930s' retro style; but in "Star Wars," the imagery cries out for a depth and dimension it never gets. So the screen looks like one of those ancient tapestries that are busy with people and trees and castles and such, all presented in the same plane.
None of which will prevent the "Star Wars" fan, like me, from enjoying this final installment any the less. If it's not as imaginative, revealing, or surprising as some of us had hoped it would be, at least it provides us with everything we expected, and that's still plenty good enough.
In reviewing "Attack of the Clones," I dared to suggest that the digital photography might not have been as absolutely faultless as some people claimed. A small storm of viewer protest met my comments, several readers saying I was obviously blind and that "Clones" was the most visually perfect film ever made. I may again receive such criticism, but I have to say that while "Sith" is better than its predecessor, it still doesn't strike me as better than, say, Episodes 4-6 filmed on regular photographic stock.
What we see in "Sith" on DVD is a splendid transfer of an imperfect visual image that still doesn't look as good to me as the best conventional photography. That said, Fox and Lucasfilm have done everything to bring the movie to disc as well as possible. The transfer is anamorphic, of course; its THX certified, of course; it's done up at a high bit rate, of course; and it retains most of its 2.35:1 widescreen theatrical ratio...of course. Yet, as I say, digital photography and blue screens somewhat compromise the film's dimensionality, and there is a small, soft, glassy haze covering some scenes. Moiré effects? A few. Grain? Zero.
If one could legitimately complain about some details of the video or the movie itself, one could hardly find anything to criticize about the sound. In Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, it's simply spectacular. The stereo spread is as wide as any movie soundtrack made; the bass is thunderously deep; the dynamic impact will raise your roof, or it'll raise your rent if you're forced by your landlord to move because of the noise; and, naturally, the directionality of the aural effects brings the listening area alive like nothing you've heard, short of another "Star Wars" movie. In brief, the audio on "Revenge of the Sith" sets the gold standard for sound reproduction. Beware, however: Played too loudly it could affect your hearing.
As always, Fox and Lucasfilm offer the movie in a special-edition, two-disc set. Disc one contains the feature film; a generous fifty scene selections, plus a chapter insert; a THX Optimizer suite of audiovisual calibration tests; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English subtitles. As with the other "Star Wars" DVDs, you get different groups of menu graphics each time you boot up the disc. Also of interest, this is the first DVD I can remember that allows you to skip through the FBI warning and other such screens at the press of a button.
In addition to watching the movie, you can hear an audio commentary by director Lucas, producer Rick McCallum, animation director Rob Coleman, and visual effects supervisors John Knoll and Roger Guyett. Because this is a team effort, we get more information than usual, but unlike many other team commentaries, this time the participants don't try to be cute, clown around, or one-up each other. Lucas explains more of his philosophy behind the movies, saying that viewers should think of the six installments in the series as one long movie focusing on the tragedy of Darth Vader. Meanwhile, the other men comment on various technical aspects of the filmmaking. For instance, they note that they created the big lava sequence at the end of the movie using computer graphics, miniatures, and a real volcano. By coincidence, Mt. Etna in Italy erupted at the time of filming, and Lucas sent a team of photographers there to capture the explosions. Fascinating stuff.
Now, what do you mean are there Easter eggs? Of course, there are Easter eggs, one of the cleverest being a specially animated scene with Master Yoda getting down and boogying to hip-hop music. You should find the eggs for yourself or you miss their value, but DVD Town publishes clues from time to time.
Among the hallmarks of the "Star Wars" DVD sets are their celebrated documentaries, and disc two of "Sith" makes a two-hour doc the centerpiece of its many extras. This time out, Lucas decided to give credit to all of the many craftspeople who work behind the scenes to produce the tiniest bit of film. The documentary, called "Within a Minute," takes us through the multitude of talent necessary to produce even a minute of footage. Watch this one in its entirety for an explanation of what all those folks in the closing credits actually do to make a movie work. Additionally, there are two featurettes of eleven and fourteen minutes each: "It's all for Real: The Stunts of Episode III" and "The Chosen One," an examination of "connecting the dots," as Lucas puts it. This second featurette follows Anakin's progress from hero to Vader to "the pinnacle of all evil."
Next up, we have six widescreen deleted scenes with optional introductions by Lucas and MacCallum. They include "Grievous Slaughters a Jedi" and "Escape from the General"; "A Stirring in the Senate"; "Seeds of Rebellion"; "Confronting the Chancellor"; "A Plot to Destroy the Jedi?" and "Exiled to Dagobah." This latter scene is particularly touching.
Following the deleted scenes are a music video, "A Hero Falls," by John Williams; a nostalgia teaser; an epic trailer; and over a dozen TV spots. After that are fifteen Web documentaries of four-to-eight minutes each, covering every aspect of the filmmaking process you can think of related to the six "Star Wars" movies. I wish there were a "Play All" function, though, but I couldn't find one.
Lastly, there is a section for production photos, with text notes; one-sheet posters and various other print campaigns; a playable demo of two levels of the Xbox "Star Wars Battlefront II" video game, complete with its own trailer; a "Star Wars Empire at War" game trailer; and a DVD-ROM Web link to further "Star Wars" materials.
"Star Wars" Press Junket:
On a side note, to help publicize the release of "Sith," George Lucas graciously opened the doors of his Skywalker Ranch to the press, and I had the opportunity to attend. The highlight of a full day of activities was the appearance of several of the stars and filmmakers for a lengthy question-and-answer session. Actors Hayden Christensen, Ian McDiarmid, and Frank Oz were in attendance, as was producer Rick McCallum and others. They were all most cordial with their time and responses, providing a good deal of personal feedback not contained in the documentaries. Just a couple of notes: McCallum said there would be no VHS release of "Sith" because the market just wasn't there anymore for tape, but that there would definitely be a high-definition transfer in the near future. He also mentioned that Lucas was finishing up a script for the new Indiana Jones movie, so that project seems finally on track. Oh, and there will never, ever, be a CGI Yoda replacing the puppet Yoda in the early "Star Wars" movies. The audience seemed relieved by this news. Finally, in the opening space-combat scene, keep an eye out for the kitchen sink. Lucas told the animators he wanted everything thrown in, "including the kitchen sink," so the animators took him at his word.
In the end, I enjoyed Episode III, "Revenge of the Sith," more than Episodes I or II, but it hardly compares to Episodes IV and V in the original trilogy. Part of this is nostalgia, naturally, but much of it is Lucas. In Episode I he created a kind of comedic kiddie cartoon for children, complete with cartoony computer creatures. This seemed appropriate since the main character was a child. In Episode II he created his intergalactic version of a chick flick, an outer-space romantic adventure. Again, this seemed fitting as Anakin was now a young adult; and, after all, the filmmaker had to explain Luke and Leia's eventual entrance into the series.
In "Revenge of the Sith" Lucas created the out-and-out tragedy we were all waiting for. Anakin's fatal flaw, his selfishness from which the Sith draw their power, leads him to his downfall. Padme dies in childbirth. Obi-Wan and Yoda go into semiretirement. The baby Leia is taken away by Jimmy Smits to be raised in secret. And baby Luke is whisked off to live in the farthest reaches of the galaxy, Modesto.
They are Lucas's movies. He has every right to tell them any way he chooses. And we have every right to criticize. Seems fair enough.