So. Star Wars is over.
I’ve just returned from the midnight showing of Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. I’m going to refrain from making pompous pronouncements like “The circle is now complete,” or anything like that, even though that’s kind of how I’m feeling. My childhood is officially over – Star Wars was the last of the things I loved when I was six to finish up, and it’s fitting that George Lucas has ended this huge, grand experiment with the saga’s most adult installment. This time, shattered innocence was the point, and while I have issues with the film (like I have with all Star Wars movies), both my inner six-year-old and my outer 30-year-old are satisfied.
I find that I’m not interested in being a Lucas apologist this time out – if you need me to tell you that Star Wars is important, then nothing will convince you. This is a saga that reverberates in the hearts of its fans, to a degree that non-fans (and even casual fans) sometimes find bizarre. If you’re in on it, it’s huge, mythical even. If you’re not, it’s just another loud, flashy summer movie with bad dialogue and wooden acting. I can’t tell you why Star Wars means as much to me as it does.
And it must mean as much to a lot of people, because you can read gripe after gripe about how Lucas has raped the series with the last two films, and yet I guarantee you Revenge of the Sith will be the top movie in the country for the next couple of weeks. The theater I went to this morning showed Sith on five screens, and sold ‘em all out. People care about these movies, and many people (myself included) care enough to go see them again and again.
But just because I care and love these movies, doesn’t mean I think they’re great works of art. Star Wars is based on old adventure serials, like Flash Gordon, and is crafted in a very specific, iconic style. Inherent in that style is some cornball dialogue, some stiff acting, and some simplistic plotlines. Contrary to quite a lot of popular belief, the original trilogy (Episodes IV, V and VI) doesn’t transcend that style, either. They’re all pretty consistent – straightforward, flashy, stilted, kind of silly, and kind of clunky. Even the most successful of the six, The Empire Strikes Back, knocks on the door of greatness and then runs away, more often than not.
But if you buy into them, and let yourself get carried away by them, they breathe magic in a way that no effects-laden blockbusters that have come in their wake do. I think buying into them requires seeing them when you’re young, when your wide-eyed imagination is still able to be influenced. These films have a mythical grandeur, a beautifully romantic sweep, and now that all six are in place, the full scope of Lucas’ hopeful vision is clear. Star Wars is an epic about a very small thing – a son redeeming his father. The massive scale is all metaphor.
Lucas has always been writing for the trade, as the comic book fans say. Many derided Episode I – The Phantom Menace for its innocence and cartoony humor, and they dissed Episode VI – Return of the Jedi for the same reason. But the innocence was the whole point. Of course the good stuff comes in between, when hope disappears, death is imminent and heroes are lost. Both the Gungans and the Ewoks are childhood triumphant, and the cross-galactic celebration that ends Jedi drives that home. It’s simple, yes, but it’s also effective myth-making.
The original trilogy was all about coming out of the dark, and so naturally the prequel trilogy has been all about going into that same darkness. Revenge of the Sith is the final link, the descent into hell that sets the stage for Episode IV – A New Hope. This is the deepest, darkest, most affecting chapter of the saga, or at least, it is if you want it to be. But more than any other Star Wars film, this one is for the fans, the ones who have been following all along and are invested in the fates of Anakin Skywalker, Padme Amidala and their offspring. For the fans, this one is deeply felt and moving, the fulfillment of the legacy.
For everyone else, though, here is the secret to enjoying Revenge of the Sith:
Not even a little. This is such an earnest, corny, irony-free movie that you have to be swept up in it for it to work. There’s a lot of great stuff in Sith, but this time, the movie revolves around George Lucas’ dialogue the way none of the others (except maybe parts of Return of the Jedi) have. These characters say things like “You’re breaking my heart” and “You underestimate my power” and “Now we will finish this” seriously, and they mean them, and it means something when they say them, but if you’re not invested in this saga, Sith may be the most unintentionally funny flick you’ve ever seen.
Things that don’t quite work: Well, there’s the dialogue, particularly any scene in which Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala have to act like they’re hopelessly in love. There’s Ian McDiarmid’s portrayal of the Emperor – he’s all slippery subtlety for the film’s first half, but when he takes on the familiar visage from Return of the Jedi, he becomes a cackling parody of evil. And then there’s Darth Vader’s first appearance, a moment so head-slappingly awful that even the diehards will laugh.
But the things that work, and there are many, bring this series to a close better than I could have hoped. The descent of Anakin, long theorized and imagined, is chillingly plausible, and the final battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi packs a surprising emotional punch. Ewan McGregor is terrific as Obi-Wan, and though even he cannot make some of these lines sing, his sense of loss and betrayal is the heart of this movie. Hayden Christensen throws himself into the role of Anakin, and many of his scenes are affecting.
The film is relentlessly dark, as it should be, but I was knocked out by the places Lucas allowed these characters to go. This is the first Star Wars film that really hurts, and even if you’re expecting it, there are moments that will sucker-punch you. Even Yoda, completely computer-generated here, conveys a deep sadness, and you can completely understand his exile to Dagobah and his reluctance to train Luke in Episode V.
Yes, this film is political, showing how freedom can disintegrate when safety is threatened. Yes, this movie is also probably the most beautiful, stunning, heart-stopping CGI display ever seen – nothing I have ever witnessed looks like this film, and in that sense it is Lucas’ crowning achievement. But all that would mean nothing if Sith did not bring closure to the six-movie Star Wars saga in a satisfying way, if Lucas failed to make this film with all his heart.
I think he pulled it off. I was worried after Episode I, and I found that after Episode II I was most concerned with whether Lucas would be able to transform Anakin into Vader. I was so concerned, in fact, that I completely missed the altogether more difficult trick he performed – with Sith, he transformed Vader into Anakin. He redefined the original trilogy – you’ll never watch it the same way again. The stark black and white, good and bad of the original films is now muddied and infinitely more complex.
No sequence in the original is as altered by the prequels as the ending of Return of the Jedi, in which Luke redeems his father. There’s a scene in Sith that mirrors this one exactly, and knowing Anakin’s journey adds layers upon layers to Vader’s blank stare. What is he thinking of? Well, now I think we know, and it wraps the whole saga together in ways I did not expect. Star Wars has never hit me emotionally the way it does now. Vader was pure evil without his backstory. Anakin Skywalker, however, is misguided, lost, and somehow still redeemable, and that makes him a much more interesting, albeit tragic, figure.
For the first time in his scrappy little adventure series, Lucas has engaged my brain as much as my heart. I’m amazed that I’m saying this, but Revenge of the Sith makes Return of the Jedi a better movie. It adds focus and clarity to the story – it’s not about a band of rebels bringing down an empire, it’s about a father and his son. In the end, Anakin does bring balance to the Force, and even if you’ve seen the original trilogy a hundred times, that moment will never hit you the way it will after Sith. It’s all different, it’s all complete.
As I said, I can’t explain what this saga means to me, or why. But I’m grateful to George Lucas for sticking by it, for doing it the way he wanted to do it, and for giving it heart. Star Wars has consumed Lucas for longer than I have been alive, and now that it’s done (barring the inevitable re-releases and endless tinkering), I can see why he dedicated so much to it. If you’re able to accept its faults and its shortcomings, Star Wars is a remarkably beautiful and human story. And if you’re not, well, don’t worry. Revenge of the Sith is a film for the faithful, for the ones who have been on this ride all along, and if the other movies haven’t done it for you, then this one won’t either.
As for me, my friends and I have had this geeky little plan for a long time now. When all six films are available on DVD, we’re going to rent a large-screen television and watch the whole thing, back to front. I was worried about it before, but now I can’t wait. The finished Star Wars is better than I ever imagined it would be, and experiencing it with my best friends in the world seems like a terrific way to cap off my childhood. It’s all over, but just as I’ve grown up with Star Wars, so Star Wars has grown up with me, and with this final piece in place, I know it is a story I will continue to treasure.
See you in line Tuesday morning… and may the Force be with you.