A Darth Is Born

| 11 Nov 2014 | 12:40


    Directed by George Lucas

    With the release of the final Star Wars prequel Episode Three: The Revenge of the Sith, cinema's most popular space opera ends where it began and begins where it ended. As promised long ago by writer-director-producer George Lucas, the film's climax crosscuts between fallen Jedi Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) becoming cyber-knight Darth Vader and Queen Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) dying as she gives birth to future galactic saviors Luke and Leia. (Spoilers abound, my young Jedi.)

    The twins' arrival sets up Episodes Four through Six—aka the original trilogy—and gives viewers a sliver of hope, but just a sliver. Easily the series' bleakest installment, Sith is a doom-spiral blockbuster that dares admit the narcotic allure of dread. Its elegantly choreographed action sequences, teeming panoramas, brazenly inventive sound design and muscular crosscutting reaffirm that Lucas is, and always has been, a fearsomely gifted showman.

    Unfortunately, he's still George Lucas, a director who achieves the impossible while botching the basics.

    When it comes to visualizing fantasy landscapes in a matter-of-fact way, few rivals can touch him, and his knack for balancing menace, mayhem, slapstick and sentiment within a single sequence rivals Hitchcock, Spielberg and Kurosawa. Yet his set pieces often do little to advance his stories and themes. (Consider the pod race in The Phantom Menace—one of the most intricately imagined action scenes ever filmed, yet barely relevant to the plot; for that matter, consider Sith's opening starship battle, which seems to go on for days.) With actors, he's King Midas in reverse, and his dialogue ranges from competent to cruddy. The mix of A+ technique and C- dramaturgy is nearly unique in American cinema; Lucas is the directorial equivalent of a prophesied sci-fi man-child who can levitate whole cities but can't master a knife and fork. Sith is an infuriating, electrifying movie—a savant's masterpiece.

    The best stuff is so engrossing that you're tempted to forget not just the worst of Sith, but Lucas' lead-footed The Phantom Menace and his half-clever, half-exasperating follow-up, Attack of the Clones. In the latter, Lucas alienated even die-hard fans by sweating tiny political details, staging a romance so goofy and chaste it felt time-warped from 1935, and saddling his romantic leads with the cheesiest lovey-dovey dialogue this side of a fifth-grade play. Yet Lucas' conception of Anakin was always more complex than detractors claimed; ditto Christensen's performance, for my money the boldest take-it-or-leave-it gamble in Star Wars history. Lucas and Christensen's choices earn limited vindication here, as plot and character details planted in the first two prequels finally take root and flower.

    In Clones, Anakin was envisioned as a volatile wunderkind whose talent outstripped his maturity. His cockiness, petulance and flashes of fury—like James Dean plus Sal Mineo—suggested that the most corruptible Jedis were the ones predisposed toward jealousy, vanity and feelings of thwarted entitlement—i.e., adolescents, or grownups with adolescent minds. Anakin's simmering passions boiled over in Clones when he returned to Tattooine to find his mom, watched her in die as a slave to Sandpeople, then murdered a whole village in retaliation. Anakin's icy fascination as he recounted the massacre to Padme suggested the rampage might not have been involuntary—that perhaps his mother's defilement gave him an excuse to vent a rage he'd felt for years but had managed to suppress.

    Sith shows Anakin shirking logic and succumbing to feeling. We watch him drift from good mentor Obi-Wan (Ewan MacGregor, dignified against all odds) and fall under the spell of Chancellor Palpatine, aka the Sith Lord and future Emperor (the great Ian McDiarmid, by turns charming and repugnant), who plots to destroy the Council of Jedi Knights and push the Galactic Republic into dictatorship. Anakin allies himself with Palpatine because he feels undervalued by his Jedi masters, and because Anakin's wife Padme is pregnant and suffering premonitions of death. Anakin agrees to do Palpatine's bidding, however repellent, because Palpatine treats him with fatherly love and respect, and has promised to teach him to raise loved ones from the dead.

    Palpatine is the picture's driving force, corrupting the galaxy as he corrupts Anakin, promising a greater good purchased through moral shortcuts. The Chancellor holds power by embroiling the Republic in questionable wars. Asserting emergency powers, Palpatine neuters the Galactic Senate and shapes public opinion through lies and demagoguery, declaring, "If you're not with me, you're my enemy" and vaguely promising "…a safe and secure society." He's a false deliverer who would destroy the Republic to rescue it. ("What if the democracy we're saving no longer exists?" a character asks—a good question that should have been asked sooner.)

    Lucas' relentless depiction of Anakin's decline fuses esthetic and moral intelligence. When Palpatine tells Anakin, "Remember what you told me about your mother and the Sandpeople," the line is followed by a sound cue buried deep in the mix: a Sandperson's anguished howl. A climactic bit of cross-cutting—the finest since the final stretch of The Empire Strikes Back—juxtaposes Yoda and Palpatine duel in Coruscant's abandoned Galactic Senate chamber with Obi-Wan and Anakin's showdown on a volcano planet. Palpatine telepathically hurls vacant senate seats at the little green warrior, literally using symbols of democracy as weapons. As Anakin and Obi-Wan fight, growing more emotional by the minute, they edge physically closer to rivers of lava symbolizing the unchecked passions that made Anakin a candidate for corruption; by duel's end, the magma will disfigure Anakin's body just as his dark feelings disfigured his goodness.

    None of the above should suggest that Sith is perfect. Like much of Lucas' work, it's at once sublime and stupid, and the quality differential between scenes (sometimes within scenes) induces a moviegoer's whiplash that yanks you out of the fantasy. Most of the supporting characters—including Padme, C-3PO and Samuel L. Jackson's Mace Windu—end the saga without having acquired more than one dimension. Darth Vader's hellish birth on an operating table aims to evoke Frankenstein, but his cornball flailing and hollering feels more like Young Frankenstein—and the grainy, blown-out lighting marks it as the only scene in Sith that was plainly shot on video.

    Yet Lucas compensates with images of uncanny beauty and sadness. Only hipster critics would resist the director's loving shout-outs to E.T., Gone with the Wind, The Seventh Seal and Apocalypse Now, the ink-and-wash sunsets over Coruscant, the old movie eye-light drawing attention to corrupted Anakin's fiendish yellow eyes, and the scene where Obi-Wan chases a bad guy while perched atop a giant lizard (a John Carter paperback cover in motion). When Obi-Wan and Anakin lay into each other, their whirling light sabers flutter in the air like lethal neon butterflies. The movie's most eerily powerful sequence envisions the destruction of Jedi Knights as an intergalactic hit job, modeled on the baptism/massacre sequence from The Godfather. At one point, John Williams' score strikes an appropriately Mahler-like tone as stormtroopers on a psychedelically colored garden planet preemptively shoot a female Jedi in the back. Lucas cuts to an overhead shot as the killers pump laser bolts into their victim's body. The camera cranes back and slowly rises up, until a giant leaf obscures our vision like a curtain falling.