To steal a line from Darth Vader, "This will be a day long remembered." Star Wars: Episode Three—Revenge of the Sith packs in more action than The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones combined. The opening crawl begins with the word "War!" and quicker than you can say "Into the garbage chute, flyboy!", Sith jumps into light-speed storytelling.
The opening shot (an obvious nod to the first Star Wars film, 1977's A New Hope) plunges us headlong into a chaotic combat zone. The Separatist Alliance wickedly assaults Republic ships in the skies over Coruscant, the Republic's capital city. Early manifestations of X-Wings, TIE fighters, and Star Destroyers pyromaniacally careen and collide in the biggest "star war" adrenalin-rush since the dogfights of '77. (It's a thrill, but the pilots steal so much cockpit banter from previous films, Han Solo should sue.)
In the thick of things, young Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and his bearded mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) strive to rescue Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who has been kidnapped by the snarling General Grievous. Part monster, part machine, Grievous looks like a junkyard Transformer and sounds like a Russian war veteran with smoker's lung. He also tends to turn tail and run when facing a real threat … like Skywalker.
Two things quickly become clear:
First, Sith is not another patience-trying episode in which heroes stand around and bicker ad nauseum about politics. Critics have rightfully opened fire on the prequels for lacking the snappy dialogue and the high-stakes action of Episodes 4-6. While Sith is still lacking in the dialogue department, it's a significant improvement on its predecessors.
And second, Lucas warned us that Sith wouldn't be kid-friendly—and he's right. Beheadings, severed limbs, third-degree burns … if there's a bright center to the universe, you're in the film that it's farthest from. But is it gratuitous violence? No. These sometimes-gruesome scenes are essential in portraying the wages of certain characters' sins.
Anakin, despite his new unruly hairdo, has become more mature and responsible since Attack of the Clones. Obi-Wan, who's "not brave enough for politics," grins like a proud uncle and lets Anakin go his own way to become a Jedi "poster boy" amongst Republic Senators. But away from the spotlight, Anakin seeks covert liaisons with his secret, and pregnant, wife Padmé (Natalie Portman). "Our baby is a blessing," says Anakin (begging the question—a blessing from Whom?), and he calls the revelation "the happiest moment of my life."
Dark dreams disrupt Anakin's bliss, convincing him that Padmé is in danger. Yoda, who does double duty here as a Jedi therapist and a sweatsuit-wearing action hero, warns Anakin: "The fear of loss is a path to the Dark Side. Attachment leads to jealousy—the shadow of greed this is." He exhorts Anakin to surrender anything he fears to lose, declaring, "Death is a natural part of life."
But Anakin's battle against fear, jealousy, and greed is—as we all know—a losing one. His loyalties are divided. The Jedi rightfully distrust him and lecture him but show little concern for his dark premonitions regarding Padmé, while Palpatine showers Anakin with flattery. The stage is set for the last temptation of Skywalker. Determined to protect Padmé, he makes a Faustian bargain.
Meanwhile, Darth Sidious is baiting the democratic Republic to vote for its own destruction. Jedi Master Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) smells trouble brewing, but he's never heard of "Order 66," the satanic-sounding trap that will spring upon the Jedi. All that remains is for the nefarious Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) to enable Anakin's ascent to power at the right hand of a Sith lord.
You can feel the Republic's infrastructure crumbling. Lucas takes a note from The Godfather in a montage of dismaying assassinations. While enemies collapse when blasted by Yoda's "Forcibility," there will be no one to stop them this time. As in The Return of the King, the drama descends into a volcanic abyss for the culminating struggle of Mentor vs. Student. It's the saga's "Darth nadir."
Lucas's greatest success in Revenge of the Sith is this: We can't help but sympathize with Anakin as he surrenders to the Dark Side. Lo and behold, Darth Vader did not strive to be a heartless villain. He became one by trying to protect the one he loved, going blind to the greater good in the process. The stakes are finally high enough to earn gasps, and the ensuing tragedy is almost Shakespearean. Three intensely emotional lightsaber showdowns—two of which invert the famous Luke/Vader/Emperor face-off of Return of the Jedi, and another that severs bonds of friendship—stir up some of the operatic drama we remember from duels in Empire and Jedi. We're drawn, at last, to the edges of our seats.
Simultaneously, Lucas discovers what actors are for—acting! He throws a switch, and suddenly Christensen, Portman, and McGregor come alive, emoting as if things really matter. Lucas choreographs them through a virtuosic sequence culminating in the descent of a devil who resembles specters that lurked in The Seventh Seal, The Fellowship of the Ring, and The Passion of The Christ. We're suddenly in Frankenstein territory, as Sidious builds a better monster. This scene of darkness and deformity is effectively intercut with images of grief, despair, and finally, a glimmer of hope. With all of the dark drama of Titanic sinking, Darth Vader rises.
In a rush of surprisingly familiar faces and locations, the circle is made complete, and our questions—most of them, anyway—are finally answered. But new questions are sure to linger in moviegoers' minds …
Did Lucas intend Sith to be a commentary on contemporary politics? He denies it, but you'll wonder. Padmé watches the Republic crumble, and remarks, "So this is how liberty ends—to thunderous applause." Dooku and Grievous resemble a recently overthrown warlord and a smash-and-run terrorist, both hunted by an elected leader armed with emergency executive powers. Something's familiar when Anakin shouts, "If you're not for me, then you're my enemy!"
Sith's spiritual subtext is provocative as well. Few tales of pride have led to harder falls. But Anakin isn't just arrogant; he's reacting to a seeming lack of trust, care, and compassion from the Jedi Council. Like Gladiator's villain, Anakin strikes because he's been denied the love he desires. And like The Godfather's Michael Corleone, he's sold his soul to gain power and ensure his family's safety. Lucas vividly illustrates that a violent man convinced of his own righteousness is dangerous indeed. But does our storyteller recognize that his celebrated Jedi Council characters seem better at cold detachment than they do at "tough love"? Obi-Wan was wise to teach Luke Skywalker not to give in to anger, but isn't some level of concern for our loved ones a good thing? Isn't it asking an awful lot of Anakin to expect him to just "detach" from Padmé?
Deciding that desirable ends justify sinister means, Anakin writes off the Jedi as "evil." Obi-Wan answers, "Only a Sith deals in absolutes!" Does Obi-Wan mean that there are no absolutes? If so, then why does he absolutely disagree with Anakin's perspective? Or perhaps he means that it's dangerous to make oversimplifications about good and evil. If so, that's a lesson Kenobi forgets in later episodes. Luke must defy Obi-Wan and Yoda in Empire and Jedi to make the journey where he will find that Vader is not "absolutely" evil.
It's increasingly hard to believe that the Force "binds the galaxy together" in the end. It remains merely a commodity, something that Jedi and Sith can get and learn to manipulate for their own purposes, good or evil. In The Lord of the Rings and Raiders of the Lost Ark, there was "another will at work," an Authority worth serving, a Higher Being that could redeem a mess made by well-intentioned but insufficient heroes. Phanton Menace told us that the Force has "a will." Why, then, do the Jedi not appeal to it? Sith and Jedi—both of them corrupt—seek merely to control it. There's apparently no Higher Power they believe can save them—not even in the afterlife. They're on their own.
Moreover, it's bewildering to hear Yoda nonchalantly claim that a Jedi should reject "attachments," and that "death is natural." Why, then, is he distraught over the corpses of murdered colleagues? Doesn't Luke save the galaxy in Episodes Five and Six by rejecting that philosophy and serving his "attachment" to Han, Leia, and ultimately his father? Death is unnatural … it was not a part of God's plan for creation. It's a natural part of a fallen world, yes, but we recoil from it and grieve over it because it is a flaw, not an ideal. It's evidence that the world needs of a bold, benevolent redeemer, not an insensitive, dispassionate savior.
You're unlikely to hear much discussion of these dilemmas. Star Wars fans are sticklers for details, and it's not wise to upset a fanboy. Sith gives them plenty to complain about. As in Menace and Clones, Lucas gives his characters lines that are often preposterously bad. Continuity problems left unsolved will drive perfectionists to distraction. (These are detailed in an extended review at Looking Closer.) Annoying problems, to be sure, and those obsessed with such things seem to have been made to suffer.
But we shouldn't condemn the whole enterprise for a few loose screws. While it falls short of Four and Five, Episode Three is easily as compelling as the climactic Return of the Jedi, and it's definitely the most visually enthralling installment.
Some gratitude is in order. Through Star Wars, Lucas revolutionized many aspects of filmmaking. He wove mythologies, religions, cliffhangers, and Akira Kurosawa films together into a fascinating hybrid. He emphasized that spiritual realities are as important as material realities. A parade of popular directors—James Cameron, Michael Bay, the Wachowskis, Peter Jackson—have built careers out of resources he invented. And Star Wars lingo has influenced language from the playground to the White House. For fans and everyone else, these movies have altered the world, usually for the better.
So, is this truly the end of Star Wars? "Difficult to see. Always in motion the future is." Until we know, let's be thankful for an unforgettable journey and a story that, like any great myth, gives us glimpses "through a glass darkly" of things essential and true. Virtue, courage, patience, peace, self-control, love … the Good Side are they. To borrow a line from Obi-Wan, "Thanks to George, we've taken our first steps into a larger world."Discussion starters
- Why do the Jedi object to having Anakin join the Council? Why are they suspicious of his appointment as the Chancellor's "personal representative"?
- Compare the relationship of Anakin and Palpatine with the relationship between Anakin and the Jedi. Why does Anakin ultimately join Palpatine? How does Palpatine's treatment of Anakin differ from the way the Council treats him? Is one treatment "right" and the other "wrong"? Discuss.
- Chart out Anakin's fall. What were his first mistakes? What finally pushed him over the edge? What kinds of temptations do you face in your own life that can cause you to stumble?
- Think back to the Jedi prophecy—that one would come to bring "balance" to the Force. Does Anakin do that? Or does someone else? What does it mean for the Force to be in balance? Should we hope for good and evil to come into balance?
- We're told that a Jedi has found his way out of the netherworld, and can now commune with living Jedi. How does this compare to your understanding of what lies beyond death? What does Scripture mean when it says we have a "great cloud of witnesses"?
- Have the Star Wars stories changed the way you think about the real world in any way? How have they influenced your imagination? Do you see their influence as primarily good, or mostly misleading??
- Which character in Sith seems most firmly grounded in his or her perspective? What about in the series as a whole—whom do you admire, and why? Whom do you least admire? Why?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Parents—beware! This PG-13 movie is extremely violent. Bodies fall from smashed starships. We see severed hands and heads, melting and distorted bodies, gunpoint executions, a man set ablaze … and children are killed too (offscreen, thankfully).
Photos © Copyright 20th Century Foxcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 05/19/05
In 1977, Obi-Wan Kenobi praised Luke Skywalker's first step of faith in something called "the Force," an invisible power that "binds the galaxy together." He said, "You've taken your first step into a larger world."
For many of us, watching that groundbreaking epic was our first step into a larger world indeed. The special effects, the mythological references, the spiritual ideas, the cliffhanger adventure, the allusions to Akira Kurosawa—it was a fascinating hybrid. You may have grown up with Star Wars toys, books, cereals, posters, and videotapes. (My own favorite pieces of Star Wars memorabilia … a battered old lunchbox and a die-cast model of Darth Vader's TIE fighter that I assembled, glued, and painted myself at age 7.)
Could it be that George Lucas is somewhat responsible for the current surge in Christian media film coverage? A decade ago, there weren't many Christian press film critics writing regularly. Now they're everywhere. A colleague of mine speculated that, since many of this new crowd of Christian critics are in a similar age range, it's possible that Star Wars had something to do with our choice of subject. After all, the trilogy arrived while many of us were young and impressionable. The saga's tendency to provoke conversations about spirituality and the nature of "the Force" inspired many of us to begin engaging with film in a whole new way.
Thus, many of us—including Christian press film critics—greet Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith with a mix of enthusiasm and sadness. The circle is now complete, and there's joy in seeing so many varying pieces fit together, completing the trilogy and answering most (but not all) of our nagging questions. There's joy in seeing the narrative seeds planted that develop into that beloved story of the Rebellion versus the evil Empire. And there's sadness in finding ourselves without another Star Wars film to anticipate. Let's face it: there's nothing like the thrill of that moment when the 20th Century Fox fanfare gives way to the classic John Williams theme. There's nothing like the sight of a Star Destroyer as it engulfs the screen or the sound of Darth Vader's menacing breath.
So, how is Episode Three? Does it continue the sub-standard dialogue and political intrigue of the previous prequels? Does it recapture the high-stakes action and compelling characterization of the original trilogy? Are there any real surprises?
While many Christian media will deliver their reviews starting today, here are a couple of second opinions from earlier in the week.
Peter T. Chattaway (CanadianChristianity.com) opens with some measured praise for the animation and the improvement in performances. But then he opens fire for a sustained attack on Lucas's storytelling. "For all the talk of 'democracy', this Star Wars film is actually less interested than any of the others in the lives of ordinary people, and the romantic dialogue is, of course, laughably bad. Revenge of the Sith proves once again that Lucas has no idea and little interest in how real people relate to one another. Lucas is as tin-eared and ham-fisted with spiritual seduction as he is with the romantic kind. Revenge … marks the first time Lucas has really shown a person 'converting' from one side of the Force to the other, but he never pulls it off."
He concludes, "The prequels have robbed the Star Wars universe of much of its mystique."
Episode Three has a similarly dramatic effect on Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films). "I was an enthusiastic proponent of both [prequels, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones]. Only now, with the saga finally complete, do I fully appreciate in retrospect the extent to which the opportunity of the first two films was squandered. Yes, I admit it: I was wrong. The failure of Episodes I and II undercuts the power that Revenge of the Sith could have had. Revenge of the Sith is the first of the prequels that echoes elements in the original trilogy in such a way as to enhance the original films."
Greydanus also offers an impressive overview of the entire saga, demonstrating the Eastern ideas portrayed in Star Wars and how the series seems to contradict itself on key points.
Mainstream critics are at war. Most of them find this to be one of the best Star Wars films, but some are opening fire as if determined to bring Lucas's Star-ship the ground—including one (Peter Travers of Rolling Stone) who said, "Wear blinders. Cover your ears. Because that's the only way you can totally enjoy Revenge of the Sith."from Film Forum, 05/26/05
Star Wars: Episode Three — Revenge of the Sith continues to kick life into a box office slump, earning a head-spinning $158.5 million in four days, annihilating the former four-day record set by The Matrix Reloaded ($134.3 million) in 2003. The Force is strong in this one.
Meanwhile, more Christian press critics are responding to Sith. (We featured the first wave of reviews last week.) Their differences of opinion are as striking as the difference between the original Star Wars trilogy and the new trilogy.
Gene Edward Veith (World) argues that Revenge of the Sith "has many fine moments … and none of the annoying sidekicks and sappy sentimentality that marred the first two episodes. Is the movie an allegory critical of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, as some liberals and defensive conservatives interpret it? Not really."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) raves, "Visually, Sith is the most stunning, if at times overwrought, of the entire series. Lucas strikes a balance between technical video-game-style wizardry and human drama, bringing all the loose story threads to a coherent ending (or middle). [It's] more fun than a barrelful of Wookiees. As the final curtain falls, it's nice to see a film that finally captures the true force of his vision!"
"The film's opening is filled with the unexpected promise of a return to the action-packed fun of the original movie," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "Lucas, in addition to providing the brilliant special effects that has been the standard of the franchise, gives us what the first two prequels have sorely lacked—humor. Unfortunately, this light-hearted attitude doesn't last beyond the opening scenes. Lucas loses himself in the space soap opera quagmire that he has constructed and allows himself and the talented cast he has assembled to be sucked down into a humorless dark place."
Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) argues, "What could have been a brilliant film is … a mediocre one. Although it does not live up to the quality of the first three Star Wars films, Revenge of the Sith is a worthy endeavor that merits viewing. By overlooking its faults—as well as its more-than-questionable theology—most people will find it to be a fun film."
But in her blog, Barbara Nicolosi (Church of the Masses) calls it "abominably, laughably, inexcusably bad. If you haven't gone yet, please do not pour your money into the Lucasfilm dark side. It's a terrible movie."
Jonathan Avants (Phantom Tollbooth) says, "We're given more of what Lucas does best—sensational action scenes that capture and enthrall the imagination. Perhaps the only disappointing feature of Revenge of the Sith is how frustratingly close it gets to being a true masterpiece. The film is held back from greatness by overall poor dialogue."
David Kenney (Relevant) raves, "Does Episode 3 deliver? Yes … oh my gosh, yes. The first 30 minutes alone are enough to scream, 'Thank you, Mr. Lucas!' Star Wars fans get the movie that they have always wanted. The performances given in this movie were much better than seen previously."
But Kevin Miller (Hollywood Jesus) objects. "If this film didn't have the Star Wars label on it and it had been written by a relatively unknown screenwriter, do you really think anyone would have bought the script, much less made it into a movie? Set your nostalgia aside for a moment, and you'll see what I mean. It's okay, you can admit it: This film stinks!"
At the same site, Ed Travis notes "zero romantic chemistry" and "the excellent look and feel of the character- and imagination-driven original trilogy." He also notes "many questions worth asking. What makes someone a hero? What might someone hold on to so hard that it could destroy them? Just why do dark things tempt humankind? These are some of the great questions of life and faith. Ultimately, Star Wars remains such a huge phenomenon because those elements of humanity we all relate to shine through in a fantastic and imaginative way."
Tom Price, also at Hollywood Jesus, says, "Ultimately, Revenge of the Sith is like its principal character—dark, flawed, very interesting and perhaps worthy of redemption as time will tell."
Most mainstream critics continue to praise this as a worthwhile conclusion and the best of the prequels.
A ready-to-download Movie Discussion Guide related to this movie is available at ChristianityTodayMoviesStore.com. Use this guide after the movie to help you and your small group better connect your faith to pop culture.
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