'Sith': The Promise Fulfilled
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
"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.
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.