Archive for Monday, May 16, 2005

Star Wars’ saga concludes with plunge into dark side

(PG-13) ***

May 16, 2005

Darth Vader has one of the most bizarre character arcs in movie history.

In chronological order of the way the six "Star Wars" episodes are made, Vader starts off as the epitome of evil, redeems himself as good (does the title "Return of the Jedi" refer to him and not Luke Skywalker?), is born, becomes a valiant swashbuckler, then a renegade, and eventually turns into a twisted wretch more ruthless and deranged than one could imagine.

Once considered a bad guy as thematically black as the costume that encases him, Vader has become the dominant figure in the "Star Wars" series. He is its hero; its villain; its centerpiece.

Now, 28 years after the character debuted, Darth Vader's "story" represents the swan song for the most successful movie franchise in history. "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" is vastly superior to creator George Lucas' recent two efforts, while still occasionally subject to the same limitations that beleaguer the director.

As advertised, it's the darkest of the films -- PG-13, no less. There are moments when Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader (Hayden Christensen) and the forces of the latent Empire turn on their allies that are the most unsettling passages that Lucas has concocted. (Perhaps one of the hardest things to stomach watching on screen isn't violence or gore, but emotional betrayal.)

Helping matters immensely is the leading turn by Christensen. Anyone who saw him portray pathological liar Stephen Glass in "Shattered Glass" knew the kid had acting chops. But Lucas managed to cull only a whiny and morose performance from Christensen in the previous "Attack of the Clones" -- made even dorkier by that braided rat rail in his hair.

The 24-year-old actor returns in "Revenge of the Sith" with a better hairstyle and an improved story to work with. Improved by Lucas standards, anyway.

The film is pretty much wall-to-wall action, with little of the filibusters about trade unions that made "Phantom Menace" and "Clones" so irritating. The iconic opening crawl decries "War!," and upholds that energy until the final striking image that presages the original "Star Wars."

Although plot synopsis is a lost cause for a project like this, suffice to say it's a story told in parallels: the crumbling of the old Republic and the genesis of the Empire; the downfall of a Jedi and the rise of a Sith lord; the death of Anakin and Padme (Natalie Portman) and the birth of Luke and Leia.

Lucas is a notoriously weak director in terms of working with actors -- there's a sense he would prefer all his characters to be computer-generated -- yet he delivers his strongest modern showing here. Whereas the romantic relationship between Anakin and Padme felt like it was written by a 12-year-old castrato in "Clones," the pair generate actual depth of emotion in "Sith."

This is a necessity, because Anakin's descent into the dark side of the force doesn't work unless the viewer believes he thinks he's doing it for the right reasons. In this case, it's to save his wife from a fate that he has foreseen.

Anakin can't help himself, despite Yoda's warning, "The fear of loss is a path to the dark side."

Lucas also introduces another crucial aspect that that was lacking in his last two pictures: a genuine villain. Ian McDiarmid as Supreme Chancellor Palpatine supplies a charismatic, convincing menace to the proceedings, setting up one of the better encounters in which he and Yoda duke it out on the Senate's 3-D floor. (Steven Spielberg reportedly helped his old buddy Lucas choreograph this sequence.)

While the acting improvements are welcome, Lucas can't quite divorce himself from the cheeseball dialogue (Anakin: "This is where the fun begins"). And he certainly writes himself into a corner by having a prequel be the final picture. It's hard to muster much sensation of surprise when most of the plot twists already have been revealed in the other episodes.

Yet Lucas' main distraction is that his movies have become so enamored with, and dependent upon, technology. That overwhelming computerized aspect often smothers the joy one should feel from a freewheeling space adventure. Lucas appears to have blurred the line between what is artistry and what are sterile algebraic equations.

That facet is what makes his last three pictures more susceptible to becoming dated than the first batch. Ultimately, there may come a time when digital effects look 100 percent authentic, but as of 2005, they still look like digital effects. In fact, "Sith" sequences involving some of the lightsaber battles and a lava-spewing volcanic planet come across as just plain hokey.

It might be a strange spectacle to view these films in their numerical order, in terms of the discrepancies in their look and feel. It will likely be a tossup between what changes more dramatically throughout the full "Star Wars" series: the visual tone of each successive movie or the character arc of Darth Vader.

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