Back to the Future

The last Star Wars installment succeeds—mainly by returning us to the first.

Spoiler

Plot issues resolved in Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith. By John Moe MORE

Remind me again: Who are the Sith? And why are they mad at us? Should we send flowers? My biggest worry going into Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith (which opens Thursday, May 19, at the Cinerama and other theaters) was that I'd have to remember all the details from those boring interstellar trade embargoes, galactic diplomacy disputes, and freak-filled senates from parts I and II. In other words: the bad parts, the ones that have almost obliterated parts IV, V, and VI from fond memory implanted during the '70s and '80s. You shouldn't have to do any homework before seeing a movie, and I wonder if even George Lucas, at this point, isn't also a little tired from three decades of franchise management.

Happily then, while Sith is no classic, it does its job successfully without overtaxing your patience or committing any great sins (read: Jar Jar Binks) against the folklore and love that Star Wars, as a whole, has rightfully inspired. The best thing about it is that after 28 years, it delivers you back to the start (a kind of Death Star Year Zero), poised to revisit the first three wonderful movies with a whole new level of appreciation. To put it differently: Sith is the greatest, grandest DVD featurette ever made; a nice setting to the jewel in the crown that is the '77 original.

Let's face it: The Star Wars franchise went irreversibly downhill with the retirement of Han Solo. George Lucas needed someone to call bullshit on the whole solemn Force thing, and that someone was Harrison Ford. He made Han the only guy in the galaxy with a sense of humor, the only man even slightly interested in sex. Carrie Fisher's Leia helped tremendously in this regard—it's not enough to have beautiful eyes to attract a suitor; you've got to be able to roll them, too.

But if the subtext to the first clutch of Star Wars movies was courtship, Lucas has moved beyond sex to an even vaster and more sober project—parenthood. Sith is fundamentally a marital conflict between wavering Jedi knight Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and his secret bride, Padmé (Natalie Portman), whom we all know to be the future parents of Luke and Leia. In which faith will their kids be raised—Jedi or Sith? ("You've changed," Padmé tells Anakin. "I don't know you anymore." Gee, was the big black helmet a clue?)

Anakin has David Lynch dreams about Padmé dying in childbirth, so evil Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) uses those fears to draw him to the dark side—which can supposedly prevent her death. It's a mythic, almost Wagnerian bargain—my soul for my wife's life—that plays like high-school drama. You can't say that Christensen and Portman are inherently bad actors; rather, the dialogue between them—delivered in a fabulous penthouse above the planet-city of Coruscant—is flatly declaimed in a "Padmé,Iwillalwaysloveyou.Exitstageleft" sort of way.

For relief, apart from the action scenes, it falls to the robots and non-English- speakers like Chewbacca, whose incredulous bleeps and growls haven't been processed through the Joseph Campbell translation chip. C-3PO gets most of the laugh lines, and that's not saying much. Obi-Wan is starched with Jedi rectitude. And while Ewan McGregor does his best job yet of channeling Alec Guinness, there's less fun to be had from the young knight being disappointed for the first time than the old knight who's seen it all and can no longer be surprised by anything.

Maybe for that reason, Lucas is always in a hurry to get to the next sword fight, the next planet, the next bit of cliff-hanging CGI code. He can't write, but he sure can edit: He's always intent on bumping us forward to another exotic locale, like a tour guide impatient with the itinerary he typed himself. As with the last two Roman numerals, Part III makes for great travel porn. From Metropolis-influenced Coruscant to the wooded Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk to Utapau (essentially a giant pothole) to Luke's double-sunned Tatooine, these are all pages to thumb back in one's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. (Well, maybe not volcanic Mustafar, where Anakin and Obi-Wan finally square off; you can't find a high enough SPF to protect against molten lava.)

Lucas and his movies also work better in the desert than the city; Coruscant has a disturbingly massive, gleaming Albert Speer aspect to it. Obi-Wan seems more comfortable on Tatooine than in the rather fascist-looking Jedi Temple. Back in '77, the dusty, lived-in, disheveled sci-fi design was a breakthrough, and appropriate: The resistance was held together with duct tape and baling wire. Cheapness was part of the charm. The aesthetic here is unfriendly—the decadent totalitarianism of the Early Empire Period. I'm not sure if Lucas does this intentionally (which actually serves his broader story), or if he can't help himself from smoothing everything out with the digital iron. In purely visual terms, the movie peaks in its very first scene—a World War II–style dogfight in the stratosphere above Coruscant. Most space battles are played out against a featureless black-velvet backdrop; here, it's more like the swarms of fighters and lumbering battle cruisers are competing for a parking space on Fifth Avenue.

Although (unlike its PG predecessors) Sith is rated PG-13, most of the violence is directed against anonymous helmeted troopers and droid warriors, who can be decapitated with impunity. The good guys fall with little pained gasps that I don't remember from the other pictures, but there's no blood. The only real gore and suffering is reserved for Anakin, before he dons the black helmet; for the first time, we understand it to be his own personal, portable ICU ward, and that much of his subsequent anger is at mortality—the inevitable failing of the flesh.

Appropriate for a cycle begun and finished during times of war, Sith has its political aspect. We should remember that Lucas and Coppola once intended to make Apocalypse Now together, on location, in Vietnam. There's more than a bit of Kurtz to Anakin—the golden boy who goes bad, the warrior who cuts the strings to Kansas and makes the field tent his home.

This brings us to the Sith. Unlike the Jedi, who value their feelings and intuition, the Sith are a binary, black-and-white sort of crowd (as indicated by their storm troopers' uniforms—no camouflage here!). "If you're not with me, you're my enemy," says Anakin, elevating the terror alert level to orange. Obi-Wan, ever the diplomat, retorts: "Only a Sith lord deals in absolutes." Or a certain leader who also invokes a security threat—the Jedi are terrorists!—to justify war, secrecy, and fascism. Hmm, who could that be?

THE PROBLEM IS that none of Lucas' politics makes sense any more. Vietnam is over, and Palpatine—sorry, I mean Nixon—is out of office. The Viet Cong might, by some stretch, have been compared to the Jedi, but no one would say the same of Al Qaeda. Absolute power is always evil in the Lucas cosmology, but aren't absolutes also necessary to combat evil? The Holocaust was evil. Stalin was evil. 9/11 was evil. Does that make us Sith to oppose them? Which side are you on? The world has changed, and Lucas has changed the world of filmmaking forever, but he can't keep up with the new pace of events.

Or Peter Jackson. The overwhelming sense inspired by Sith—a pleasant, satisfied sensation—is coupled with this feeling: Man, the LOTR trilogy did this kind of stuff so much better. There, amid the CGI armies fighting for good and evil, you had entertainingly nasty orcs, bits of slapstick, and petty hobbits squabbling for food (all of it PG-13). And, while Yoda is impressive with his supercomputer wrinkles and wisps of white hair, he's no Gollum.

Beyond his limited characters, Lucas has also put himself in a corner when it comes to Sith's story: What drama can there be when we know that Anakin becomes Darth Vader and that Padmé births Luke and Leia? All Lucas really has left to do is tie up the loose ends to Star Wars, and he's certainly a good enough director for that. (John Williams' thrilling score actually gives all six movies more thematic continuity than their scripts.) And let's remember how the Wachowski brothers squandered their Matrix trilogy with each new installment; by comparison, Lucas is leaving us in a pretty good place. Part III is much better than I and II. We should be grateful for that.

And he's learned a few things along the way. I didn't laugh much in Sith, but I certainly laughed loudest—and perhaps inappropriately—during a funeral scene. There among the mourners is Jar Jar, and Lucas doesn't even let him open his mouth. So there really is A New Hope.

bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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