"Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" answers The Question. Not the question "What are the Sith?," which it actually never gets around to, but the other question.
You know the one I'm talking about. It's a great question, the very hardest and the most important. Others have tried to answer it before, like Melville and Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare, though they could never agree on the answer. Which suggests that the answer may not be as important as the asking and, further, that it's a shame it doesn't get asked much any more.
In the final installment of "Star Wars," Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), at bottom, turns against his onetime mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) in an apocalyptic battle.
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The Question is: What makes man evil?
And the fact that George Lucas tries so hard to answer it certainly makes this the best of the three second-cycle "Star Wars" films -- the others being "The Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones" -- and the only one of them that can stand comparison with the original "Star Wars," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi." It's what drives the movie ahead -- it starts fast, gets fast and angry and ends fast and furious. And I do mean furious. Fury is its fuel, its raison d'etre and its destiny.
The topic of the first three films was easy as pie: redemption. It was how a boy named Luke saved a dark father named Anakin from his own evil self, and gave him, finally, a moment of connection with family, community and creed. I'm talking about that great scene in which Darth/Anakin, electrified back into moral clarity by the vision of the emperor torturing his son, picks up the debauched old man and sends him tumbling down a cosmic sewer. Ah righteousness, ah forgiveness, ah redemption.
But the topic of the second three, and particularly this one, is hard as hell. This movie chronicles Anakin's earlier transformation, by which the righteous pilgrim, so handsome, so brave, so noble, so committed, lost his way and became Ahab or Macbeth or Raskolnikov or Faust, or John Wayne in "The Searchers," a figure of power and strength and charisma and intellect, all of it invested in madness and destruction. "What corrupted Anakin into Vader?" a critic asked six years ago. "Pride, that manly bringer of self-destruction? Arrogance? Abuse? (An intriguing possibility and source of many monsters on the banal old Planet E.) Genetic predisposition? Fear? Lucas only knows and let's hope he can get it together to tell us. If told right, it should be quite a tale."
Finally, it is.
As the film begins, Anakin and his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, hardly engaged, with a quip on his lip and without a bead of sweat on his forehead) are scudding through somebody's battle fleet in order to rescue the kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine from somebody (I get the sides all mixed up, so check elsewhere for political clarity). This is, to put it mildly, a great slam-bang sequence, that settles some old scores (bye-bye, Count Dooku, whoever you were, and it doesn't really matter), part of the film's new aesthetic of action. No movie has started faster since "Saving Private Ryan," and clearly Lucas has had a long sit-down with himself in which he explained to himself that he directed action sequences far more adroitly than he directed long exchanges on power-moves in congressional backrooms.
But soon, with Palpatine (the oily Ian McDiarmid) back as Chancellor, politics does rear its ugly head. Palpatine draws Anakin (Hayden Christensen) close, which annoys the Jedi Council and shields the young man from the influence of Obi-Wan and other Jedis, just as Anakin has begun having nightmares, and in his nightmares, his wife, Padme (Natalie Portman), dies. The situation creates in him an anxiety he cannot stand, and only Palpatine seems to have the assurance, the knowledge, to help him stave off this looming tragedy. Anakin can't imagine -- he is so blinded by fear -- that Palpatine has an even greater tragedy on the drawing board.
And so we watch the young man's wooing by the old man, how adroitly the old man plays his chords, nurses his fears, tickles his grudges, offers him the world. It's Satan showing Christ the possible, maybe it's Colonel Tom and Elvis, at least it's Mephistopheles and Faust. This is the crucible of the movie, the turning of Anakin until he's living a famous phrase from another period of 20th-century history: He has to destroy something -- his love -- in order to save it.
The movie tracks with almost clinical attention the noble Anakin sinking deeper into turpitude, until finally he commits an act so desperate and vile that it all but exiles him from the community for all time. Thus we see in his embrace of evil the forgetting of his own moral culpability, the drowning of his own memory, the escape from his own demons. Surely that is a great theme: How men purge themselves of sin by giving themselves over to a cause with all their hearts. It explains how you could fly a plane full of mothers and babies into a skyscraper and think you were going on a date with 72 virgins, or how you could goose-step your way toward conquest and genocide while singing schmaltzy oompah music.
As Lucas has it, and as he dramatizes it vigorously as if he's finally gotten over the yakky tendencies that troubled his last two films, Anakin's great flaw is fear. He cannot bear the thought of Padme's death, as the nightmares predict; his love for her is that absolute. Yes, it would be nice if Lucas had worked out meaningful ways to demonstrate that love other than declaring it. But he's not that kind of a director. It would also help if Christensen and Portman were more expressive actors and if the dialogue they were forced to utter didn't sound like it was stolen from "The Black Shield of Falworth," starring Tony Curtis, in 1954, but he's not that kind of director either.
He's a director of action and ideas, and in Anakin he gives us a man comprising both. Anakin is the classic man who gives up freedom for security, and ends up with neither. He's all those happy good Germans of 1938 who sold out to a Leader who would protect them from Bolshevism and who served thereafter without remorse or doubt until the world collectively rubbed their noses in it. Or he's the brilliant generation of young radicals who gave it up for Stalin's golden utopia and paid no attention to the messy steps of forced starvation and internecine slaughter of millions on the road to paradise. I suppose he's any man who believes in something so hard that he gives up his soul for it, and to forget the pain of the lost soul, he squeezes the new faith even harder until he's lost in moral space. And thus the equation that is the core of the story: Fear produces anger which produces loss of self which produces forgetting which produces rebirth which produces a capacity for . . . anything.
What this movie does is rise, rise, rise to a level of demonic intensity that hasn't been achieved since 1983's "Return of the Jedi." Anakin becomes the linchpin in Palpatine's plot against the old republic and its learned council of Jedi; using him as point man, Palpatine contrives a national security crisis as a way of turning himself into an Emperor, though it costs him a blast of energy that withers him. And then, of course, late in the plot, Anakin must meet Obi-Wan, in hell.
It's not actually hell, it's a planet of lava, with fiery rivers and geysers of flame, an orange-hued nightmare-scape. It's not hell, but of course it is hell -- the hell of men's conflict, pride amplified by fury amplified by the need to destroy, that is, the hell of 4,000 years of war. At last they have committed to sides, these two warriors, and now they will fight. The swords dart and hum through the air (the swordsmanship, presumably computer-assisted, is much faster than previously), the two thrust and parry, each obsessed with the rightness of his position. It's like the sixth act of an opera written by Nietzsche, Wagner and Robert E. Howard. I have to say that the heretofore wooden Christensen glowers, threatens, fences, fights, oozes evil magnificently; he's far more interesting as a proto-Darth than he was as Obi-Wan's best boy.
The movie, of course, has one great advantage: We know where it's going, and we're all primed as familiar signposts come up. We know it will end exactly where "Star Wars" began, and so as we tick off the implanting of the icons -- the Death Star, the Emperor's scorched and ghastly face, the mounting of the plastic mask under the Nazi helmet as Anakin becomes Darth, the birth and dispersal of the Skywalker twins -- there's a sense, most satisfying, that yes, indeed, you can go home again.
I'm not sure how all this will play for youngsters who've seen the first three films only on their TV screens. In 1977, "Star Wars" blew my generation away, re-creating for us lost pleasures of our youths in crummy B-grade bijoux in small towns and burbs, filling us with the hope that the kind of soaring, enabling narrative hadn't been lost from movies that were just then coming out of a deep and morbid period of political unrest and self-questioning that led to great but disturbing films. As a generation, we needed a drink or a vacation or a wallow. "Star Wars" provided the latter, returning us to a childhood we didn't realize we missed.
So for my generation, "Revenge of the Sith" is a brilliant consummation to a promise made a long time ago, far, far away, in a galaxy called 1977.
And if you thought I was going to tell you what a Sith is, the joke's on you: I have no idea!
(Okay, it seems to be a vanished or banished race or clan; Darth Maul, the red-faced sword ace from "The Phantom Menace," was a Sith and it turns out that a certain powerful figure has been a secret Sith all this time.)
Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith (140 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for a level of violence unusual to the "Star Wars" cycle, including the implied murder of children, the lopping off of limbs, an act of domestic murder and a terrible burning. Parents of small children should probably see it before they decide whether to take the youngsters.