May 20, 2005 -- “Star Wars,” one of the most popular movie franchises in history, comes to a spectacular conclusion with “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.” The series, popular as it may be, has always been plagued by poor acting, thin characters, and poor dialogue. What it lacks in these areas, it makes up for with great visual imagination and the power of myth. This last episode, which opened yesterday, is more of the same. It looks better than any of the other Star Wars movies, but its weaknesses and strengths are otherwise very similar. This is state-of-the-art digital eye candy. The story does a nice job of tying up loose ends and connecting the film to the next film in the sequence, Episode IV, A New Hope, otherwise known as the first Star Wars film, released in 1977. A recreation of the interior of a rebel last ship seen in the opening moments of A New Hope is included in “Revenge of the Sith.” This is where where R2-D2, C-3PO and Darth Vader were first seen. C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is the only actor whose voice is heard in all six films.
While most of the characters are paper-thin, director George Lucas (who also appears in the movie as the character Baron Papanoida) has made some attempt to flesh out a few of the main characters, including the Jedi master, Yoda, who is entirely animated. Unlike the early puppets and earlier digital animations, this one is seamlessly integrated into the film, and looks very lifelike. Lucas, who pioneered digital filmmaking in earlier Star Wars films, takes it to a new level in this film, shot entirely with high definition video cameras. Many digital effects are used in the film. In the past, many of these effects looked flat and lifeless. Now they are rich, lifelike and three-dimensional. Digital effects have been used to create realistic-looking creatures, sets and entire worlds that were impossible when the first Star Wars movie was made in 1976. This is like matte paintings that have come to life.
Other characters who receive a lot of screen time are Anakin Skywalker (AKA Darth Vader, played by Hayden Christensen), his wife, Padmé (Natalie Portman), Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) and Obie Wan Kenobie (Ewan McGregor). All of these actors reprise their roles from earlier Star Wars films. They are given some good scenes to play and all of them are capable actors, better than those in the original three Star Wars films, with the exception of Alec Guiness, of course. While being hampered by stilted dialogue, they do their best. I felt especially sorry for Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Jedi master Mace Windu. He is given nothing interesting to say. If the movie were a dialogue-heavy drama, this weakness would drag it down, but it isn't. This film is very heavy on action and that is its saving grace. The film's many battle and fight scenes are well choreographed. A final climactic duel is fought on a planet of fire called Mustafar. Real footage of an erupting volcano, Mt. Etna, Italy, was used to create some of the spectacular backgrounds for the scene.
Other interesting worlds created for the film include the Wookiee home planet Kashyyyk. A battle scene there features a nice homage to Johnny Weissmuller and the old Tarzan films. Another interesting world created for the movie is the sinkhole planet Utapau, featuring some wild chase scenes. Another nice homage is the name of a character, Commander Cody (played by Temuera Morrison, who played bounty hunter Jango Fett in Episode II). This character's name is very similar to the name of an old science fiction hero called Commando Cody. He was a hero in some Republic science fiction serials that used to be shown in movie theaters in the 1930s to 1950s on Saturday afternoons. A spinoff Commando Cody series was also shown on TV in the 1950s. Each short episode of vintage science fiction serials like “Radar Men From the Moon” and “Lost Planet Airmen,” ended in a cliffhanger. Star Wars itself was modeled on those old serials, as were the Indiana Jones movies. The other thing that Lucas wanted to do with Star Wars was to create a new unifying American mythology to replace the old worn-out mythologies of the Westerns, which lost their force in the 1960s. This new mythology, born out the Vietnam War era, has lasted nearly 30 years into a very similar era, the Iraq war era.
Lucas was influenced by famed author and philosopher Joseph Campbell, whose seminal work, “Hero With a Thousand Faces” sought to find the similarities and underlying themes in a variety of heroic myths from vastly different cultures. His later writings emphasized similarities in religions as diverse as Christianity and Buddhism, a sort of unified religious field theory, if you will. A central theme in all the Star Wars films is a belief in “The Force,” which is specifically referred to in the first film as a religion. This belief in a unifying life force which links all life in the universe is not unlike some pagan religions. Is is also similar to the beliefs of some environmentalists and animal rights activists who believe there is an almost mystical connection between all forms of life.
The struggle which develops in the Star Wars series is between two competing branches of the religion of The Force, the Jedi faction, led by Yoda, and the Sith faction, led by Darth Siddius. The Jedi faction emphasizes selflessness and the suppression of emotions. The Force is a power to be controlled and used to protect powerless people. The Sith faction uses the power of anger, hatred and other emotions combined with The Force to dominate others. They use The Force as a ruthless means to attain personal, political and military power.
Some conservatives have blasted this film for its obvious reference to President Bush in a line uttered by Darth Vader: “If you are not with me, then you are my enemy.” Bush uttered very similar words about the Iraq war, equating war critics with traitors. Lucas says that's not what he meant, but the analogy fits, nonetheless. One could easily argue that President Bush, like a Sith Lord, has used fear, anger and hatred to consolidate his power. Bush's wars also mirror those politically-motivated wars of the evil Emperor in Star Wars. There are also similarities between the angry, passionate rhetoric of the religious right and the emotion-driven religion of the Sith lords. The emotion-fed actions of those devoted to “the dark side of The Force” are even more obviously similar to the angry actions of Islamic extremists. The power represented by suicide bombers is as frightening as the dark side of the force. Just as we seem incapable of avoiding the endless cycle of revenge and war, the heroes of Star Wars are condemned to repeating an endless cycle of wars against relentless oppressors. There is a strong implication of determinism in these films. A hero can only discover his destiny, not change it.
The broad arc of the Star Wars saga, through nearly 30 years and six movies, also fits well in the history of America during that same period. We've come from the aftermath of the seemingly endless Vietnam war to peace, and then back to endless war again in Iraq. We've come through a period of political freedom in the 1960s and 1970s to a new millenium of political and social oppression as we are menaced by a three-headed monster with the combined power of religion, politics and gigantic corporations. We've come full cycle, and so has Star Wars. Heroes rise, heroes fall, then rise again and so do villains. The mythology of Star Wars is just as powerful as ever after all these years. This film rates a B.
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