It’s strange, given how dominated the Star Wars films are by sound, fury and special effects, that the most striking scene in Revenge of the Sith is an underplayed one, with almost no precedent in any of the other movies. Around halfway through the film, in a remarkably quiescent scene, Chancellor Palpatine speaks with forked tongue to the young Jedi hero Anakin Skywalker. The viewer knows, though Anakin does not, that the Chancellor is really the evil Sith lord Darth Sidious, and that he wants to seduce Anakin to the Dark Side. Knowing that the young Jedi knight has lately suffered nightmares about the death of the woman he loves, Palpatine tells him about a Sith lord who had mastered the art of beating back death; the implication is that only Sith powers will help Anakin save his wife. The story has a sting in the tail, however; the Sith lord was eventually murdered by his own apprentice: “He saved the ones he loved, but he couldn’t save himself,” says Palpatine softly.
It’s a deliciously complex moment, comparable with the best of Shakespearean tragedy: Palpatine is tempting Anakin into a fall while simultaneously revealing what the terrible consequences of such a fall might be. This could be Iago whispering malice into Othello’s ears, or the witches hissing self-fulfilling prophecies at Macbeth. Inevitably (as every Star Wars fan already knows), the fall occurs and the price is paid. The film ends with Anakin reborn as Darth Vader, one of the most famous of all movie villains, but his very first words are an acknowledgement of his tragedy: he has attained the power he sought, but in attaining it he has sacrificed his humanity and lost everything dear to him. (“He is more machine than man now,” was a famous line in the original trilogy, and in this film, at last, the aptness of Darth Vader’s constricting black armour is revealed.)
I blogged a few days ago that I expected to be disappointed by Revenge of the Sith, that I didn’t think George Lucas would be able to do the Anakin/Vader story justice within the lightweight format of the Star Wars series. Well, I saw Sith at a preview yesterday, and I was in thrall to the movie from beginning to end. This is easily the best film in the series after The Empire Strikes Back - in fact I think it might actually be as good as Empire. And it succeeds not because the story is so compelling but because of the treatment: for the first time in his trilogy of prequels, Lucas cuts through the clutter and focuses on the central thread of the story. The reason The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones were eventually disappointing was that there was just too much happening in those two films. Not so in Sith; by dispensing with irritating characters (Jar Jar Binks, anyone?) and inconsequential sub-plots in favour of pure, character-driven storytelling, Lucas imbues this film with the mythic qualities that drew so many viewers into the Star Wars saga in the first place.
The not-so-good bits? There are some, to be sure. No one has ever accused George Lucas of being good with romance, and the scenes between Anakin and Padme are only marginally more weighty than the cringe-inducing ones in Attack of the Clones (that said, I found genuine poignance in the fact that the first words Darth Vader speaks after the costume comes on express concern for Padme’s safety). Hayden Christensen’s performance as Anakin is more convincing than his interesting-but-uneven turn in Clones, but one never really forgets that he is after all a 22-year-old boy caught up in events way over his head (of course, some Star Wars fans might say that’s exactly the point). And I still have big problems with the computer-generated Master Yoda. But no flaw was so significant that it spoilt the film for me. So focused is the film’s narrative that it manages to be compelling despite the fact that every Star Wars junkie in the audience already knows how the story will turn out. So much for the prequels-don’t-work theory.
Note: though Sith was expected to be the darkest of the movies, I was surprised at how grisly the final scenes were - certainly unlike anything we’ve seen before in a Star Wars film. It adds fuel to this little theory I have that Lucas has made this prequel trilogy mainly for his original audience, the people who, as youngsters, watched and loved the first three films. As kids they were given the popcorn stuff to relish: they were allowed to see things in good-and-bad terms. Luke the hero, Vader the baddie. Now, 20 years on, those people have grown up, have presumably lost childhood’s idealism and are ready for a back-story which shows that things aren’t so simple after all.
Tailpiece: What do you do when a friend lambasts you for suggesting that you were - horrors! - moved by something he/she deems unworthy of serious attention, that you might even have seen traces of profundity in it? What I generally do is, I allow the exchange to descend into a long, meaningless wisecracking session, because I’ve learnt that it’s pointless getting into a serious discussion when it comes to certain topics. (And most times it can’t be described as a discussion anyway; for that, you need the other person to at least be open to your views.)
This classification of the Things you’re Allowed to see Deep Meaning in vs the Things that must be Treated only as Fluffy Entertainment has been a thorn in my side for a long time. The subject usually rears its head in film discussions (“how can you take Brian DePalma seriously, the content of his films is so superficial, trivial, even vulgar?”) though it crops up in other areas too. I have a long-standing problem with people who refuse to even acknowledge that there might be something worth respecting, worth mulling over, in a film or a book that appears superficial or populist. I tend to think (and I know this will, paradoxically, sound very judgemental) that there must be something inherently shallow about someone who needs to have themes, ideas, messages served to them only in the most obviously deep vessels.
Why am I going on in this ultra-defensive vein? Well, because sadly you need to be ultra-defensive when you’re about to announce that you loved the new Star Wars film not just because it was eye-popping entertainment but because you were stirred by it at an emotional level.
P.S. Around the same time I posted this, two far more comprehensive reviews of the film were put up by Indian bloggers. Great Bong writes here about his love for the series. Coincidentally we made some of the same points in our posts - Macbeth and the witches et al. I always feel a tad awkward expressing love for a Star Wars movie, so it’s comforting to know that there’s a talented, thoughtful writer out there who feels the same way and makes no apologies for it.
Meanwhile Samanth Subramanian, one of the finest film reviewers I know (though that’s just one of his many hats), is a little more reserved in his appreciation of the film but I strongly recommend you read his review.