By Marc S. Sanders
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith is the best installment in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy of his epic space opera saga. However, that is where the line is drawn.
It carries a heightened drama thanks primarily to Ian McDiarmid as the eventual Emperor Palpatine. Shakespeare might have been proud of the character and performer. Much like Alec Guinness received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Ben Kenobi, so should McDiarmid have been honored playing an antithetical influence (of Kenobi) on the student and Jedi in Training, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen in a much more improved performance).
War within the galaxy is rampant and there’s no end in sight. The Jedi Order is overwhelmed. Anakin is used as a pawn to spy on his new mentor Palpatine who in turn insists that the young Jedi occupy a chair in the Jedi Council to spy on them. In addition, it’s hard for Anakin to come to grips with his secret wife Padme (Natalie Portman) dying from childbirth as his nightmares continue to remind him. A deal with the devil himself in Palpatine is offered as an option. Can a manipulation in the Force rescue Padme from death?
There’s a lot of weight on Anakin here. Sith departs from the politics discussed in the prior entries as it focuses primarily on Anakin’s personal struggles. The film really needed to take this direction. After all, it’s time to witness Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader. Everyone has been dying to see that.
George Lucas’ scene set ups work on occasion. A great performance of dialogue occurs in an alien opera box between Palpatine and Anakin. This is where McDiarmid really comes through. He’s subtle and deliberate in his influence. Fortunately, Christensen just needs to listen mostly.
Later however, a scene works only so much when Samuel L Jackson as Jedi Master Mace Windu duels with Palpatine, having just revealed his secretly evil Sith side. Through all three of these films, Mace Windu has been one of Jackson’s least exciting roles. He’s bland and never doing much. Christensen comes upon this scene and doesn’t give me the genuine anguish I was hoping for. McDiarmid, again, is hitting home runs in surprise and development. This turning point scene is not as strong as it should have been thanks to Lucas’ stilted direction and writing, along with Jackson and Christensen lacking any true depth.
Episode III also has a handful of so what moments that continually frustrate me in this trilogy. We have to watch Yoda and Obi Wan watch a video of what Anakin has done. Why? We’ve seen this already. Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits; I wish he had a larger role) needs to be informed of an upcoming meeting. Honestly, I don’t need an update on a character’s calendar. Just make sure he arrives on time. Moments like these don’t drive towards anything.
Natalie Portman is not served well as a pregnant Padme. Her dialogue is worse than ever, and it hinders her performance. Padme is torn between her affection for Anakin and her passions for democracy. We see next to none of the latter. How does an intelligent woman like Padme suddenly become so unaware? Ironically, opportunity for her political nature was filmed but remains only as deleted DVD features. These scenes would have enhanced the movie as they imply the foreshadowing of the upcoming Rebellion, while a petition attempt is mounted to usurp the Emperor’s administration. Here, Padme is trying to be instrumental in Luke & Leia’s (her own children) future. Really good material here. Nevertheless, George Lucas opted to leave it all on the cutting room floor. Oh well! I’m still holding out hope for a “special edition” cut one day, inclusive of this storyline.
Lucas’ lava planet, Mustafar, is quite grand as the arena for the much-anticipated dual between evil Anakin and noble Obi Wan. Still, again, it could have been better. There’s too much CGI and flashing lightsabers that hide the acting among the swordsmen. Compare this to the duals in Empire and Jedi and you see what I mean.
I know my commentary on the prequels is quite pessimistic, but I do have an (maybe a biased diehard fan) appreciation for the films. The stories work. The execution falls short however in dialogue, performances and visual artificialness.
George Lucas had all the right make up for a trilogy as epic as his original films that began in 1977. Maybe because he didn’t have the monies and technology at that time, his imagination had to work overtime back then. In these later films, however, his hubris got in the way of his craft. So, we have to settle for his next great technological discovery in CGI efficiency. Therefore, we get cartoons with no depth like Jar Jar Binks, General Grievous, and lame, clicking battle droids.
Lucas always defended the position of his writing by insisting these films are aimed for kids. No. I don’t accept that. Star Wars was aimed for kids and the kids that remain in all of us as we continue to grow into adulthood. George Lucas needed to write with that in mind.