Star Wars: Episode III–Revenge of the Sith

*** (A must see)

Directed and written by George Lucas

With Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Ian McDiarmid, Frank Oz, Jimmy Smits, Samuel L. Jackson, and Christopher Lee

What I wouldn’t give to see President Bush’s expression when Revenge of the Sith screens at the White House and the freshly annointed Darth Vader, hoping to seduce Obi-Wan Kenobi to the dark side, declares, “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy!”

Not even a kid could miss this echo of the president’s ultimatum to the world in November 2001. More surprising yet is Obi-Wan’s retort: “Only a Sith deals in absolutes!” Could this possibly be part of the Star Wars saga, with its dualistic view of the universe, its shining Jedi knights doing battle against the evil First Galactic Empire?

I don’t want to make any grand claims for Revenge of the Sith, the last installment in George Lucas’s mythological space opera. Like its five predecessors, whose total box office to date is $3.4 billion, it’s first and foremost a state-of-the-art popcorn movie. But Lucas has woven into the action and effects a relatively thoughtful story about a young man meant for greatness but corrupted by his own fear and confusion, a story more Shakespearean than Arthurian. That, more than any bizarre creatures or digital whizbang, makes Revenge of the Sith an impressive finale.

The overt reference to contemporary politics may seem strange, but for years Lucas has been trying to live down the impression that he’s a militarist or, even worse, a closet fascist. After Star Wars (1977) became a cultural phenomenon, critics pointed out that the last scene–in which the heroes march through a bisected throng of admirers to be honored by the republic–was patterned after Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1936). To Lucas’s chagrin, President Reagan craftily exploited the series’s popularity, referring to the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire and to his Strategic Defense Initiative as the Star Wars program. (Lucas sued the government to prohibit it from using his title, but he lost.) Poke around on the Internet and you’ll see Lucas accused of everything from racism (with Jar Jar Binks as a simpleminded Rastaman) to homophobia (with C-3PO as an effeminate handwringer) to anti-Semitism (with Watto the Toydarian as a hook-nosed Jew).

If Star Wars had become a little cult film–like THX 1138 (1971), Lucas’s debut feature–no one would have bothered to dream up a political agenda where there clearly wasn’t any. But Star Wars probably influenced the movie business more than any picture since The Jazz Singer, hastening an end to the maverick 1970s and ushering in the era of computer-effects behemoths, international blockbusters, and vast merchandising campaigns. Lucas cannily retained the rights to Star Wars merchandise, which has now grossed $9 billion worldwide. If he had taken advantage of its spectacular financial success these past three decades to make even one movie as intimate as his 1973 classic American Graffiti, he probably wouldn’t have as many long knives pointed at him now. But for a generation of cinema lovers, Lucasfilm Ltd. has become the creative equivalent of the First Galactic Empire.

All this is a lot of baggage for a former hot-rodder from Modesto, California, and watching Lucas try to unload it in Star Wars: Episode I–The Phantom Menace (1999) and Star Wars: Episode II–Attack of the Clones (2002) hasn’t been much fun. The original trilogy, which wrapped up in 1983 with Return of the Jedi, told how the empire was defeated by a band of intrepid freedom fighters, an upbeat and often comic tale of good triumphing over evil. The second trilogy leaps back in time to tell how the democratic republic crumbled and was subsumed by dictatorship, an interstellar bummer to say the least. Now, instead of critics or politicians imparting a philosophy to the saga, Lucas was doing it himself, boring many of his fans but impressing none of his detractors. Who wants to watch a Star Wars movie that takes itself too seriously?

I sure don’t, but because of the expository spadework done in the two previous movies, Star Wars: Episode III–Revenge of the Sith can take itself just seriously enough to be dramatically satisfying as well as good fun. The through line of episodes one, two, and three is the gradual corruption of Anakin Skywalker, a slave boy recruited by the Jedi knights and viewed as a possible savior of the republic because of his virgin birth (how’s that for upping the ante?) and their judgment that “the Force is strong in him.” From childhood he’s been schooled by the wise and humorous Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor, channeling Alec Guinness a little more with each performance and, frankly, holding the whole trilogy together). But by the second installment, little Anakin has curdled into a sullen, haughty teen (Hayden Christensen), impatient with the republic’s dithering senate, irritated by the Jedi council’s high-handed treatment of him, and highly impressed with himself as the “chosen one.”

In Revenge of the Sith, all of Anakin’s conflicts come to a head. He’s secretly married a senator of the republic, the baby-doll pretty Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), and they’re expecting a child, but he’s tortured by nightmares of her dying in labor. He’s also haunted by memories of his slave mother, who stayed behind on their home planet and endured a hard life and a brutal death. In the opening action sequence, he and Obi-Wan board a spaceship to rescue the kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), and after Anakin defeats the evil Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) in a lightsaber duel, the chancellor goads him into executing his unarmed prisoner, a violation of the Jedi code. But Anakin learns that the code is being compromised from the top as well when Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), a senior member of the Jedi council, taps him to spy on the chancellor.

Lucas’s understanding of democracy and fascism is not exactly subtle, nor is his characterization of Anakin, but the two are so perfectly fused as part of an action plot that the movie plugs into the same mythological wall socket that powered the original. The oily chancellor tempts Anakin with the story of Darth Plagus: “He had such a knowledge of the dark side he could keep the ones he loved alive.” Later on Anakin is told by Yoda, the little green Jedi wise man, that “the fear of loss is a path to the dark side.” So is doubt: after Anakin finds himself a double agent between the chancellor and the Jedi council, each scheming against the other, Padme wonders aloud, “What if the democracy we thought we were serving no longer exists?” In the end–as Lucas revealed 22 years ago in Return of the Jedi–Anakin Skywalker is finally lured to the dark side and becomes the Sith lord Darth Vader.

The lightsaber duel is a fixture of the Star Wars movies, and Revenge of the Sith climaxes with two of them intercut–a relatively pointless face-off between Yoda and the Sith lord Darth Sidious and an explosively dramatic one between Vader and Obi-Wan. Unfortunately Vader hasn’t yet acquired his Nazi-chic black headgear and uniform or his ventilated James Earl Jones voice-over. But the two Jedi duke it out on a hellish lava planet called Mustafar, where luminescent orange seas rise, fall, and erupt around them. It’s the final joust between this son and surrogate father (unless you want to count their duel to the death in Star Wars), and the mutual sense of betrayal is powerfully visualized. The Sith are still unquestionably the bad guys, but the Jedi have been seriously compromised as well by their spying and treachery.

Lucas just turned 61, and he’s made clear that this is his last Star Wars feature. Whether he’ll make good on his promise to direct smaller projects or just retreat to his throne as an executive producer of other people’s movies remains to be seen. But everything else he’s done or ever will do is destined to become a footnote to the Star Wars phenomenon. In a way it’s like the Force, something he found within himself that’s larger and more powerful than he ever could have imagined, with the potential to ennoble or corrupt. The idea that a good man following a right path could unknowingly become an architect of evil times must have cut pretty close to the bone for Lucas. Whether this column of light will slice through the White House screening room is another matter.