Sith. What kind of a word is that? Sith. It sounds to me like the noise that emerges when you block one nostril and blow through the other, but to George Lucas it is a name that trumpets evil. What is proved beyond question by “Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith,” the latest—and, you will be shattered to hear, the last—installment of his sci-fi bonanza, is that Lucas, though his eye may be greedy for sensation, has an ear of purest cloth. All those who concoct imagined worlds must populate and name them, and the resonance of those names is a fairly accurate guide to the mettle of the imagination in question. Tolkien, earthed in Old English, had a head start that led him straight to the flinty perfection of Mordor and Orc. Here, by contrast, are some Lucas inventions: Palpatine. Sidious. Mace Windu. (Isn’t that something you spray on colicky babies?) Bail Organa. And Sith.
Lucas was not always a rootless soul. He made “American Graffiti,” which yielded with affection to the gravitational pull of the small town. Since then, he has swung out of orbit, into deep nonsense, and the new film is the apotheosis of that drift. One stab of humor and the whole conceit would pop, but I have a grim feeling that Lucas wishes us to honor the remorseless non-comedy of his galactic conflict, so here goes. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his star pupil, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), are, with the other Jedi knights, defending the Republic against the encroachments of the Sith and their allies—millions of dumb droids, led by Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) and his henchman, General Grievous, who is best described as a slaying mantis. Meanwhile, the Chancellor of the Republic, Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), is engaged in a sly bout of Realpolitik, suspected by nobody except Anakin, Obi-Wan, and every single person watching the movie. Anakin, too, is a divided figure, wrenched between his Jedi devotion to selfless duty and a lurking hunch that, if he bides his time and trashes his best friends, he may eventually get to wear a funky black mask and start breathing like a horse.
This film is the tale of his temptation. We already know the outcome—Anakin will indeed drop the killer-monk Jedi look and become Darth Vader, the hockey goalkeeper from hell—because it forms the substance of the original “Star Wars.” One of the things that make Episode III so dismal is the time and effort expended on Anakin’s conversion. Early in the story, he enjoys a sprightly light-sabre duel with Count Dooku, which ends with the removal of the Count’s hands. (The stumps glow, like logs on a fire; there is nothing here that reeks of human blood.) Anakin prepares to scissor off the head, while the mutilated Dooku kneels for mercy. A nice setup, with Palpatine egging our hero on from the background. The trouble is that Anakin’s choice of action now will be decisive, and the remaining two hours of the film—scene after scene in which Hayden Christensen has to glower and glare, blazing his conundrum to the skies—will add nothing to the result. “Something’s happening. I’m not the Jedi I should be,” he says. This is especially worrying for his wife, Padmé (Natalie Portman), who is great with child. Correction: with children.
What can you say about a civilization where people zip from one solar system to the next as if they were changing their socks but where a woman fails to register for an ultrasound, and thus to realize that she is carrying twins until she is about to give birth? Mind you, how Padmé got pregnant is anybody’s guess, although I’m prepared to wager that it involved Anakin nipping into a broom closet with a warm glass jar and a copy of Ewok Babes. After all, the Lucasian universe is drained of all reference to bodily functions. Nobody ingests or excretes. Language remains unblue. Smoking and cursing are out of bounds, as is drunkenness, although personally I wouldn’t go near the place without a hip flask. Did Lucas learn nothing from “Alien” and “Blade Runner”—from the suggestion that other times and places might be no less rusted and septic than ours, and that the creation of a disinfected galaxy, where even the storm troopers wear bright-white outfits, looks not so much fantastical as dated? What Lucas has devised, over six movies, is a terrible puritan dream: a morality tale in which both sides are bent on moral cleansing, and where their differences can be assuaged only by a triumphant circus of violence. Judging from the whoops and crowings that greeted the opening credits, this is the only dream we are good for. We get the films we deserve.
The general opinion of “Revenge of the Sith” seems to be that it marks a distinct improvement on the last two episodes, “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones.” True, but only in the same way that dying from natural causes is preferable to crucifixion. So much here is guaranteed to cause either offense or pain, starting with the nineteen-twenties leather football helmet that Natalie Portman suddenly dons for no reason, and rising to the continual horror of Ewan McGregor’s accent. “Another happy landing”—or, to be precise, “anothah heppy lending”—he remarks, as Anakin parks the front half of a burning starcruiser on a convenient airstrip. The young Obi-Wan Kenobi is not, I hasten to add, the most nauseating figure onscreen; nor is R2-D2 or even C-3PO, although I still fail to understand why I should have been expected to waste twenty-five years of my life following the progress of a beeping trash can and a gay, gold-plated Jeeves.
No, the one who gets me is Yoda. May I take the opportunity to enter a brief plea in favor of his extermination? Any educated moviegoer would know what to do, having watched that helpful sequence in “Gremlins” when a small, sage-colored beastie is fed into an electric blender. A fittingly frantic end, I feel, for the faux-pensive stillness on which the Yoda legend has hung. At one point in the new film, he assumes the role of cosmic shrink—squatting opposite Anakin in a noirish room, where the light bleeds sideways through slatted blinds. Anakin keeps having problems with his dark side, in the way that you or I might suffer from tennis elbow, but Yoda, whose reptilian smugness we have been encouraged to mistake for wisdom, has the answer. “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose,” he says. Hold on, Kermit, run that past me one more time. If you ever got laid (admittedly a long shot, unless we can dig you up some undiscerning alien hottie with a name like Jar Jar Gabor), and spawned a brood of Yodettes, are you saying that you’d leave them behind at the first sniff of danger? Also, while we’re here, what’s with the screwy syntax? Deepest mind in the galaxy, apparently, and you still express yourself like a day-tripper with a dog-eared phrase book. “I hope right you are.” Break me a fucking give.
The prize for the least speakable burst of dialogue has, over half a dozen helpings of “Star Wars,” grown into a fiercely contested tradition, but for once the winning entry is clear, shared between Anakin and Padmé for their exchange of endearments at home:
“You’re so beautiful.”
“That’s only because I’m so in love.”
“No, it’s because I’m so in love with you.”
For a moment, it looks as if they might bat this one back and forth forever, like a baseline rally on a clay court. And if you think the script is on the tacky side, get an eyeful of the décor. All of the interiors in Lucasworld are anthems to clean living, with molded furniture, the tranquillity of a morgue, and none of the clutter and quirkiness that signify the process known as existence. Illumination is provided not by daylight but by a dispiriting plastic sheen, as if Lucas were coating all private affairs—those tricky little threats to his near-fascistic rage for order—in a protective glaze. Only outside does he relax, and what he relaxes into is apocalypse. “Revenge of the Sith” is a zoo of rampant storyboards. Why show a pond when C.G.I. can deliver a lake that gleams to the far horizon? Why set a paltry house on fire when you can stage your final showdown on an entire planet that streams with ruddy, gulping lava? Whether the director is aware of John Martin, the Victorian painter who specialized in the cataclysmic, I cannot say, but he has certainly inherited that grand perversity, mobilized it in every frame of the film, and thus produced what I take to be unique: an art of flawless and irredeemable vulgarity. All movies bear a tint of it, in varying degrees, but it takes a vulgarian genius such as Lucas to create a landscape in which actions can carry vast importance but no discernible meaning, in which style is strangled at birth by design, and in which the intimate and the ironic, not the Sith, are the principal foes to be suppressed. It is a vision at once gargantuan and murderously limited, and the profits that await it are unfit for contemplation. I keep thinking of the rueful Obi-Wan Kenobi, as he surveys the holographic evidence of Anakin’s betrayal. “I can’t watch anymore,” he says. Wise words, Obi-Wan, and I shall carry them in my heart.
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