At risk of having my sci-fi fanclub card revoked, I feel obligated to tell the truth: As a stand-alone movie, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith disappoints, offering up a sprawling spectacle of sparkle to mask a story populated by lifeless characters who speak painfully unnatural dialogue.
That said, unless you’ve been in a persistent vegetative state for the past 28 years, you’re aware that Revenge of the Sith isn’t a stand-alone movie. It’s simply one episode in an epic series that seeks (successfully, I think) to encompass all the big themes, big heroes, big villains and big battles a viewer could hope to find in a story.
In short, the series gets high marks, while Episode III barely makes a passing score.
There’s a handful of things Episode III gets right. John Williams’ score soars. Ian McDiarmid’s performance as Supreme Chancellor Palpatine/Darth Sidious is, at turns, engagingly earnest and diabolically creepy. Christopher Lee’s dedicated Sith warrior, Count Dooku, makes a laudable, albeit short, appearance, and Yoda (voiced, as always, by Frank Oz) is delightful as a Jedi Master at the height of his powers.
Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi finally begins to demonstrate some of the vibrancy and character later embraced by Alec Guinness’s wry and world-weary old Jedi. Knowing the “Old Ben” of Episode IV, it’s heart-warming to watch the young Obi-Wan choose mossback creature transport when others might select shiny mechanical ride and see him kvetch over having to use a blaster when his lightsaber isn’t at hand.
Unfortunately, the on-target performances and character choices are tangential to two deeply flawed relationships at the movie’s core.
While the bond of brotherhood between Anakin and Obi-Wan is key to Anakin’s development and eventual downfall, the audience never really finds a convincing moment at which a betrayal is clearly translated. Anakin’s sudden, vigorous hatred for his closest friend comes off as more confusing than heartbreaking.
Maybe more problematic is the romance between Anakin and Padmé. Although Director/Producer/Writer George Lucas clearly sees this pair as sharing a profound bond that eclipses the characters’ other important responsibilities and commitments, the audience is treated to a vision of the most insipid, humorless couple in the galaxy.
Granted, these are dark times, but dark times call for dark humor. Lacking the charisma and sexually charged repartee of Han Solo and Princess Leia’s interactions (Episodes IV and V), we see a young man who paces, broods and fawns over a woman who does nothing but preen and stare winsomely off her penthouse balcony. She looks so unmitigatingly bored, one wonders why she hasn’t any senatorial paperwork to complete. Their conversations, far from daring and romantic, reveal Lucas’ awkward attempts at earnestness with plodding “I love you more!” “No, you couldn’t possibly, because I love you more!” exchanges.
Even with all the spectacular saber-swinging in the galaxy, Episode III never even approaches the passionate, dynamic moments seen in The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V). Though Han’s fate trapped in a frozen block of carbonite rips the guts out of a generation of fans, Obi-Wan’s final abandonment of Anakin leaves us cold.
There are times when an artist relentlessly pushes his enormous vision to fruition, ultimately creating something splendid. I believe Lucas does this on the Star Wars series’ larger scale through close attention to archetypal heroes, mythical storytelling and the 1940s sci-fi serials he riffs on. Over the long haul, he makes Star Wars into a rich galaxy of characters with lives full action and adventure, romance and redemption.
The whole is undeniably greater than the sum of its parts, and Episode III isn’t the weakest link in the chain (a title which I’d argue goes to Episode II, Attack of the Clones). Sadly, it seems our stargazer could have used a few fewer yes men and a few more talented collaborators to help polish this piece of the epic into gem unto itself.