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Appreciation: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

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Appreciation: <em>Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith</em>

A contribution to Edward Copeland’s Star Wars blogathon.

The third act resounds in a way no previous Star Wars film has since Vader goaded Luke from hiding inside the Emperor’s chamber within Return of the Jedi’s all-over climax. The best moments in Star Wars, for me, are those naked emotional crises. Those, and, of course, the spectacular spectacles. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith has both of those in spades. And not just in the third act. The whole film is a visual wonder: from the you-gotta-be-kidding-me opening shot that still gets me giddy to the Yoda-Palpatine Imperial Senate throwdown to General Grievous’s four-armed attack to (fuck it) a bunch of Wookies raging against machines to (fuck it) the dissolves in Anakin’s dream sequences to (hell yes) the engulfing lava showdown and Ewan McGregor’s pure-hurt pleas in that third act climax. And the whole film operates in tandem with its affect-effecting characters. You have to buy into Sith for this part to work; for some, this proves too difficult because of the silly dialogue and the sorta-kinda spotty acting of said silly dialogue and the odd pacing and the typical silly sci-fi plotting choices. I understand this stance. But I cannot hold it. I love Star Wars. And for a final chapter in “the saga” this son-of-a-bitch of a film is just what I want—and just what Star Wars needed. Plus, if Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith had subtitles, English-speaking audiences would be much quicker to accept it, to buy into it, to (fuck it/hell yes) love it.

Through Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Ewan McGregor looked uncomfortable and annoyed. In Episode III: Revenge of the Sith he is at his best, channeling Alec Guinness into his own unique Obi-Wan—the Obi-Wan we all knew (and loved) from the Original Trilogy, plus a fierce youthful appetite for justice and adventure ranging from giddy delight to weathered devastation. His performance, like no other in the film (save, perhaps, the animated Yoda’s) registers the weight of the saga’s scope. It is felt in his body, too. Despite this weight he does not slump: he stands toward disaster. This poise at once echoes Obi-Wan’s death one episode (and some 20 years) later and defines his ability, in the end of Sith, to prevail over Anakin’s tormented, twisted and mangled psyche. Obi-Wan, in this posture—this will to challenge fate while accepting his role within it—has “got the high ground.”

Hayden Christensen is almost there, and he’s much better here than in anything else I’ve seen him in (including Billy Ray’s surprising Shattered Glass; that’s Peter Sarsgaard’s film), but in the end he, like Anakin, cannot hold a candle to Ewan McGregor, to Obi-Wan. His voice just doesn’t quite fit. But, maybe, play along please, that’s what makes his performance work? I think so. Anakin is so unfit for life, for his body, for love, that he will only fail. His is a frail being, despite his bulky physique and immense presence in (and supreme command of) the force, because his one-track mind is wrapped up in himself—his previous and imminent failures alike. Anakin, like Christensen, can’t quite fit into himself, or the world, or the galaxy far, far away; he barely fits his own mythology.

That’s what Star Wars is, isn’t it—a mythology? A kinda-sorta fucked and convoluted mythology to be sure, one that refuses to adhere to the structures its maker claims to have modeled it after, but a mythology after all. A mythology of its own making. And, after all, isn’t a mythology all its own making, all its own history, all made up? Check out the Wikipedia page, in the Term section, where they quote the OED, here, and come back to me, here, in the essay, in this sentence. Got it? I think you could take any of those definitions or gradations and apply each one, or parts of each in dialogue with one another, towards sensing Star Wars as a mythology, an apt mythology. Much was made of Episode III’s political allegory alluding to our present administration, yet that’s the least interesting tack to take, I think. Besides, that’s the least interesting aspect of the whole prequel trilogy. Talk about convoluted: I still don’t quite follow all the political machinations of the first two episodes—but I don’t really care. George Lucas is not a tactician or allegory maker. George Lucas, still, is a visualist, a visual storyteller. And one of the reasons Episode III: Revenge of the Sith works is because of its visual sense.

Here is where I think the subtitles would help Episode III. Lucas’ film does not have the visual rigor of, say, Zhang Yimou’s Hero or House of Flying Daggers, but that is not quite a problem: it still dazzles the eye frame to frame. Here, the camera conveys the affect. True, it is not the same as Bresson or Antonioni or Tarkovsky or whichever foreign formal master you choose—but why can we not appreciate the camera and its emotional weight in Episode III? Because the story is fantastical? Because the film relies on CGI to create its worlds? I do not care about the rumor that Steven Spielberg ghost-directed segments of the film (to say nothing of the visual effects teams’ influence): the way the camera registers these worlds works. Were there subtitles onscreen in Episode III, the dialogue would be on the same plane (the screen) as the visual, a part of the visual world, and it would not be harped on as much; it might, in fact, be read as generously as the images are read. And in the lack of inflection in certain actors’ speech, the audience can attribute more to the weight of the dialogue. Watching a subtitled film, one is lulled into a reverie of the images playing over the subtitles.

Whether or not one likes Revenge of the Sith, one cannot fail to see the detail, and the care, and the lavish abandon evident in the rendering of Lucas’ worlds. The “used future” of the Original Trilogy is AWOL because the prequels are set before that time, when the galaxy was prosperous. It is not until the end of Sith that the film begins to utilize more “used” spaces, and begins to wreck spaces, to wreck the worlds, to wreck and raze and reassemble the mythology. Anakin and his clones practically destroy the Jedi Temple and the Jedi, and their history. The fight between Yoda and the Emperor practically destroys the Senate: the building, the power, the legacy. The lava climax destroys (hell, it burns) the mining campus stage across which Obi-Wan and Anakin duel; the lava destroys (hell, it burns) Anakin.

These metonymic destructions require no dialogue, or very little. The duel itself does require it, and the lines work thanks to the two actors and their total performances (dialogue plus expressions plus movement) within the sequence. Subtitles might not necessarily help the climactic showdown, but probably would not hurt it, because Ewan McGregor registers so much in his face and his posture to match Obi-Wan’s hurt voice. Hayden Christensen is good here, too, burning the film with Anakin’s malicious gaze, intent on destroying his mentor, his brother; it is how he is captured on screen in this space that lends his performance its weight. And the camera, too, is aptly baroque, as when the former friends clash and swirl around on floating platforms and ultimately fly at one another, resulting in Anakin’s demise: it glides in time with the images, and the score.

And yet to deny myself in this equation would be to deny a crucial element to the baroque success of the Star Wars mythology, which is culled and created by fans as much as by the films. The movies are enriched by what we bring to them: our mythology, our knowledge, helps us fill in the gaps in Lucas’ narrative. When I watch Obi-Wan and Anakin fighting on the lava planet of Mustafar I recall, among other things, (1) their final fight’s killer reversal in a blank Death Star corridor; (2) Vader and Luke atop the naked gangplank inside Bespin; (3) Vader’s operatic clash with Luke inside the Emperor’s claustrophobic chamber; (4) Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon fighting Darth Maul in the belly of Naboo’s capital, flying amongst the neon towers of purple energy; (5) Obi-Wan and Anakin’s failure at the hands of Count Dooku ceding to Yoda’s twirling challenge; (6) the camaraderie shared by Obi-Wan and Anakin earlier in Episode III when, in their last moment as true friends, they say, “May the force be with you.” Like any great payoff, this one has an excellent, engaging setup, a setup I have followed and invested in to enrich the myth—and its payoff.

The first two prequels are not bad; they embrace the baroque visual style and heedless, sorta-kinda flailing attempts at Aristotelian tragedy that Sith persuasively executes. And, in all, Sith is the grandest third act in space operas partly because it is preceded by two mostly off-center, but occasionally giddy-cool, prequel films/acts. In last act, especially, the characters become characters-as-affect—a kind of affect personified. Padme is all pathos, trying in vain to appeal to the love Anakin claims drove him to this end, a pure self-abnegating and self-absorbed malevolence. Obi-Wan is all resigned altruism, seeking justice despite his overriding fatigue and sense of loss (of his “brother”, of the Jedi, of the galaxy). To see this deadly combination as such is kind of outlandish; it takes some effort on the part of the audience. But this space opera saga is by rights outlandish. And wicked silly.

Yet to create such a world takes generous, visionary leaps. To sustain it was too tough for Lucas (I still do not believe he wrote out screenplays), but not too tough for fans (I still believe in the power and the force of the films). Love of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, then, is somewhat outlandish and tough to sustain in the face of obvious flaws and suspicious shortcomings, but I am willing to risk a generous, outlandish and lavish, perhaps baroque, posture towards accepting the film as it is, and make it my own, in myself, in my own Star Wars mythology, one I share with the films and the films’ fans alike. Plus, the third act is a killer.

House Next Door contributor Ryland Walker Knight is the infrequent publisher of the blog Vinyl Is Heavy.