I was heartened to learn that About.com movie critic Jurgen Fauth put Revenge of the Sith on his Top 10 list, in the number one spot, no less. He even encouraged people to revisit his original review—the most thoughtful, non-condescending piece of writing done on this movie by any critic anywhere. What stones. In the increasingly hermetic world of American film criticism, there are certain things we all know for sure, and one of them is that saying George Lucas’ movies have heft is a surefire way to get your Cool Film Critic credentials revoked. Fauth had better go down into a bunker and not come out until at least March. (The movie made my own Top 20; it probably would have made the review, with some pretty severe caveats (I called it a “savant’s masterpiece”), then spent the next three months vainly trying to convince people that I wasn’t a fanboy reviewing my own 1970s childhood rather than the movie. I believed then that there was tangible artistic merit in Lucas’ final Star Wars picture, and repeat viewings of on DVD have convinced me not only that I was right, but that perhaps even I, in my childhood-of-wide-lapels, benefit-of-the-doubt excitement, had failed to give Lucas proper credit as a mythmaker. (In my New York Press review, I wrote, “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.”)
I was wrong. Channeling Kurosawa by way of Genndy Tartakovsky, Lucas’ dynamic, clean compositions are as sturdy as woodcuts and as resonant as Tarot cards. I now think anyone who reflexively dismisses that possibility that Sith is worth discussing AS A MOVIE is, in fact, a cinematic reactionary, a person who has unwittingly rejected the notion that a film’s true worth resides in composition, camera movement and editing, rather than middlebrow notions of what’s serious. (Critics are sheep; by and large, they like what they are told they should like.) As pop art, is Sith inherently less worthy of being taken seriously than Howl’s Moving Castle, Steamboy or Corpse Bride? Let’s hope not. If melodramatic cliches, fairy tale tropes, broad physicality and elementary-school-comprehensible language render a film worthless, then those films, plus War of the Worlds, The Incredibles and Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit are all blank-outta-luck.
No matter. I went back to see Sith twice in the theater with my eight-year-old daughter, who was thrilled and disturbed by it, and grasped the central conundrum of Anakin’s fall much more clearly than the majority of critics who piled onto the Lucas-is-evil-and-stupid bandwagon—namely, in the name of supposedly good goals (saving his wife from death, advancing his career as a guardian of the Republic and claiming the power and respect to which he believed himself entitled) Anakin allowed himself to be degraded and manipulated into becoming an evil, hated person. And then there was no turning back; the whole slippery slope thing.
Both Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith are filled with rhyming situations and compositions that chart Anakin’s slide into evil with mathematical precision and operatic flair. For instance, the scene in Clones where Anakin goes to rescue his enslaved mother from the sandpeople, watches her die in his arms, then massacres an entire encampment, including women and children. This chilling setpiece—which starts with Anakin zooming across Tatooine on his hover-bike, looking like Ethan Edwards gone Hell’s Angel, and ends with a shock cut image of Anakin laying into innocent bystanders, his lightsaber literally wiping his own face off the screen and getting us into the next scene—isn’t just one of most elegantly composed and edited action sequences in the series, it presages a pivotal moment in Sith where Anakin, who’s helped kill his Jedi brother Mace Windu and can’t turn back from the dark side, marches into the Jedi temple and kills a roomful of child trainees. Those who’d seen both Clones and Sith yet thought it unbelievable that Anakin would kill Jedi children so soon after falling under the Chancellor’s control mistook their own inattention for sloppiness on Lucas’ part. They literally weren’t looking at the images Lucas put onscreen and thinking about what they meant (or perhaps they thought Lucas incapable of producing an image that meant anything). Anakin had already killed children once before, an atrocity mentioned by the Chancellor during the opening setpiece of Sith, and accompanied by a figurative sound cue: the anguished whine of a sandperson. No, it’s not subtle. This is broad-stroke filmmaking, cinema as cave painting. But if David Lynch and Zhang Yimou can do it (and they have, many times) and be taken seriously, then Lucas is entitled to the same courtesy.
The exact trajectory of Anakin’s fall was not the arc fans expected, and I know a few who really hated it. I think they hated the fact that Anakin, for all his murderous prowess, was essentially passive and weak, that he’d slipped into evil rather than rushed into it headlong, that he had become evil while pursuing good. But I think this makes the film, indeed the entire series, more interesting rather than less, more complex rather than less; the dynamics behind Anakin’s fall from grace aren’t muddled, they’re just complicated, and if the story were set in, say, ancient China or the Old West, and if it didn’t have characters with snicker-snicker names like Dooku, that fact would be more widely recognized. Sith is Macbeth for elementary schoolers, a primally simple narrative comprised of tropes so exact and conscious that they might as well be pictograms. But while it’s simple, it’s not simplistic. Lucas’ mitochondrial approach to characterization still admits more complexity than most supposedly “adult” Hollywood movies. In Sith, Anakin does evil things for what he thinks are good reasons; his fate, and the Chancellor’s certainty of his own rightness, remind us that no villain thinks he’s a villain. That’s a lesson, people, one that’s aimed not at hip adults who are sure they know everything, but at children. Repeat: children.
Speaking of which: Lucas haters seem unaware of the fact that Star Wars was never supposed to compete with Antonioni or even Bob Rafelson. It always intended to appeal mainly to kids and people who are willing to re-enter a childlike mindset. The biography Skywalking has Lucas saying early on that he conceived the story to fill a niche, the live action, tech-heavy-but-family-friendly live action fantasy, typified by Walt Disney’s production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He hoped Star Wars would satisfy those criteria while also teaching moral lessons to kids regardless of language and culture.
Lucas achieved that goal and more. I find it telling that the global response to the Star Wars series—among adults as well as children—has been much more embracing, and a hell of a lot less condescending (“guilty pleasures” and all that) than it’s been in America. Artists are often despised in their home country. Lucas didn’t just fill a niche, he invented one. Revenge of the Sith is not a guilty pleasure, just a pleasure.
Matt Zoller Seitz is founder of The House Next Door.