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DVD REVIEW: Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

The culmination (or rather, the missing link) in a 28-year cinematic saga, Revenge of the Sith aspires to tell a tragic tale, but instead succeeds in dismantling the classic mythology it seeks to complete. As writer-director George Lucas continually reiterates in his DVD commentary, the six films are of a piece, and this component undermines the whole.

As the clone soldiers of the Galactic Republic fight a devastating battle with the droid armies of the rebelling Separatist faction, Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) race to rescue the Republic’s Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from the Separatist leader, Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), and his cybernetic henchman, General Greivous (voiced by Matthew Wood). Anakin falls increasingly under the charismatic politician’s influence despite the warnings of his pregnant wife, Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), and soon Palpatine—secretly the puppetmaster behind the Separatists—initiates his endgame against the Republic.

The key events of Revenge of the Sith are known before the 20th Century Fox logo opens the film: the Jedi will fall, the Empire will rise; Anakin Skywalker will become Darth Vader, Luke and Leia will be born. The broad strokes are expertly realized with the unfettered visual style that George Lucas has developed across the prequel trilogy, but the details reveal philosophical gaps that paint a troubling picture of the saga’s central conceits. From the casual (and casually easy) extermination of the order Kenobi (Alec Guiness) called “the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic” in Star Wars (1977), to the questionable metaphysics of the Force and Anakin’s redemption in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983), Sith dismantles the magic of the Star Wars universe.

The Jedi, described with reverence by the elder Ben Kenobi in the quote above, are somewhat less impressive than audiences were led to believe in 1977. In a matter of minutes, they are systematically exterminated by their clone soldiers, offering virtually no resistance as they are gunned down from close range seemingly oblivious to their betrayal. Few of them even seem to see the attacks coming, and those that do barely react. Only Kenobi, by chance, and Yoda, by evincing minimal awareness of his surroundings, manage to escape. Were these two warriors the only lions in an order of lambs? If the Jedi instincts for survival are questionable, their capacity for mercy is of even greater concern. Kenobi’s abandonment of his apprentice at a moment of incomparable suffering is unforgiveable. Surely, a noble Jedi Knight would ease that pain with a merciful slash of his saber, but the great Kenobi manages only a sneer of disgust as he leaves his best friend to burn alive. Given the temper he exhibited in other installments of the franchise, Vader showed remarkable restraint when he dueled Kenobi 20 years later.

Sith’s greatest betrayal rests with the undermining of Anakin Skywalker’s “redemption” in Jedi, rendering the sextet’s climax laughable 23 years after the fact. As Yoda explains, in a speech that seems like an afterthought, he and Kenobi will learn the secrets of becoming one with the Force from the departed Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson). Apparently, no less a acquired skill than summoning one’s lightsaber from a distance, this ability to return from the dead has long been the spiritual coda of Anakin Skywalker’s story—he appears alongside Kenobi and Yoda in Jedi’s final scene—which Lucas revised for the 2004 DVD release, replacing the elder Anakin Skywalker (Sebastian Shaw) with Christensen’s youthful incarnation…forgiven with a complimentary facelift, no less.

In Jedi, we see Vader kill the emperor and reconcile with Luke before expiring aboard the Death Star. Lucas has made it clear that the Sith is a religion of two—a master and an apprentice—and that ascendancy is based on betrayal, as Vader suggests in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) when he implores Luke to join him in overthrowing Palpatine. Why then does the killing of Palpatine in Jedi indicate a change of heart? Vader is well within the parameters of Lucas’s Sith philosophy, and only his own death preempts him repeating his solicitation for Luke to become his apprentice. Vader is a man whose violent temper belied every assertion that he voiced about his motives for delving into darkness; a man who, having grievously wounded a fellow Jedi in a misguided rage, decided to finish him off simply because he may as well finish what he started; a man who slaughtered an entire community Tusken Raiders on Tatooine in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002), murdering children in cold blood. Are we to accept that a final act—completely consistent with Vader’s adherence to Sith philosophy—undoes decades of sin that he doesn’t bother to apologize for upon his death? Apparently so, the Force having restored his youth in death, a boon not granted to either Kenobi or Yoda who stand beside him, all quarrels forgotten.

In completing his story, Lucas has pulled a bait and switch. The audience, via the original trilogy, is offered a tragic tale ending in redemption. The prequels offer something far more cynical, the idea that one debatably noble act can redeem a lifetime of atrocities. This isn’t how things used to be done in a galaxy far, far away.

Though philosophically flawed, Revenge of the Sith ends on just the right note—one of optimism and hope. Recalling Luke’s longing glance into the setting suns of Tatooine, the final shot reminds us what we love about Star Wars, and though the later installments of the saga no longer speak with the strength of the original trilogy, they still stir an element of wonder in the imagination. That can’t be all bad—after all, Anakin wasn’t, was he?

Originally published in the 4 November 2005 issue of CS Weekly. Copyright ©2005 by Jason Davis. All rights reserved.