The Trouble with Anger Management
So that's what the first two episodes were for. This thought occurred to me because, while walking into Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, I realized this was the movie everyone was waiting to see. It's the film where Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) becomes Darth Vader, and that's all any of the fans really wanted out of the prequels, never mind Vader as a boy or Vader falling in love.
But after watching Episode III, I understand how necessary the previous movies were. Having that background makes everything happening in the final installment of Star Wars that much more tragic. This is especially true since the first two movies were relatively upbeat and pretty. Those were the good ol' days. Now everything's going to go wrong, and it's going to hurt that much more. I actually felt depressed in anticipating the tragedies to come, and I sat engrossed by the ones I didn't see coming. If the first two movies were all setup, this one is all payoff.
Episode III benefits most from being streamlined in its story -- it's clear and concise, and its conflicts are illustrations of one focused theme: the human difficulty of maintaining discipline in the face of emotional crisis. What makes this outing particularly interesting as an isolated episode is how it repeatedly depicts people failing at this without any signs of upcoming redemption. The film can afford this approach because we know redemptions will arrive in later episodes; thus, this one is freed up to show the worst of a human loss of control. And packaging it all in a two-and-a-half-hour block proves to be quite impactful -- it's as if the movie was designed specifically to make you lose your faith in people.
We're given many examples shown at various levels. Revenge of the Sith highlights the dangerous vulnerability of the public trust during times of crisis. It's practically a direct warning about people instilling too much trust in their leaders when their judgments are ruled by their passions. Here, Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is the figure who takes advantage of this, as he's the one who has orchestrated the crisis in the first place.
Meanwhile, Anakin is a singular character representative of the confused mindset between thinking about what's right and acting out what's wrong. It's actually really lovely -- and, as one might expect, archetypal -- what Star Wars creator George Lucas has set up with Anakin's conflict here. One is reminded of the stories of priests who know they must devote their spirit to their faith but give in to the human weakness of the flesh. It's an unending conflict of humanity -- to rise above what makes us human in order to attain a higher spiritual plane. Anakin faces this, and what makes it tragic is that we already know he loses. The entirety of the prequels have shown us what is at stake.
There are more examples of even the most high-minded people facing an emotional moment and losing. We get two scenes where a criminal's life is at the complete mercy of his captor, and the difference between the two captors only highlights the weakness both of them share as inherently emotional beings. In other scenes, we see love blinding judgment -- as universal a situation as there ever needs to be, naturally -- and how our regard for loving others easily leads us to question the necessity and wisdom of living at a higher plane. Now we all know that eventually Darth Vader arises and leads a life of what we call evil, but here for once we can actually feel pains of sympathy for how he caved in to his weakness.
Convincing him, of course, is Palpatine, whose arguments are persuasive, thanks to the unique situation Lucas has set up. The Jedi order can now be seen as, well, Buddhism with benefits. Enlightenment is achieved through the rejection of human desires, but with the Jedi there's the bonus of attaining great powers along the way. Palpatine uses this point to argue that the motives of the Jedi are at heart really not much different than the motives of any person who covets power. And even though he is actually perpetuating a lie, he seems to have a valid point. (Think about it -- if you fantasize about being a Jedi, do you crave the discipline or the power of The Force?) Emotional human desires are always going to be at odds with civility. And although the movie is overtly a criticism of siding with emotions in the first place, I'd like to think that it's a warning of the danger to ignore that basic part of us. We overestimate our own ability to think with a clear head because we want to render insignificant the potential of our weaknesses. For Palpatine, knowing this is the key to his success.
As a classic conflict given the weight of five movies and as an extravaganza of action, Revenge of the Sith is fantastic. But it still contains the weaknesses of the first two episodes, namely stiff expository scenes featuring awkward acting and dialogue -- and these are more pronounced early in the movie. The prequel trilogy has always been too concerned about saying everything out loud, so that we make no mistake about what every character is thinking or feeling. It creates an inescapable feeling of clumsiness that has practically become a trademark of these movies.
But once the movie gains steam, it reaches racing velocity and never slows down. On top of it all is a stellar performance by none other than McDiarmid. (Is it too much to say that Ian McDiarmid, as Palpatine, rocks? Because if it isn't, I just want to say that.) His performance is the glue that makes this whole thing work. Inspiring, insidious, wise, weary, charismatic, treacherous, and murderous -- Palpatine is all of these things, the ultimate embodiment of one of life's scariest figures: the wicked, self-serving politician. His portrayal links this fantasy movie to realities that can hit a little too close to home.
And a closing note: I'll be the first to admit I may be showing a lot of bias here -- after all, 1977's Star Wars was what got me into movies in the first place. The magic of being transported to whole new worlds is something that isn't easily forgettable once it's been experienced. Of course, when we get older, we appreciate more serious works about humanity, but it would be a shame if if we lost that part of us that thrilled to seeing spaceships do battle far above the planets. Revenge of the Sith is a wonderful reminder of when I discovered that part of me. I love these characters. They are my friends. Even the villains are my friends. This universe has meant so much to me, so much to my own imagination. Part of me is happy to see it close out strongly, and part of me is very sad to see it end, sad to see my friends go. Goodbye, Star Wars, and thanks for everything. It's been a wonderful ride.
(Released by 20th Century Fox/Lucasfilm Ltd. and rated "PG-13" for sci-fi violence and some intense images.)
Review also posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.