Star Wars Episode Three: Revenge of the Sith (2005) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
One of the most interesting scenes in Revenge of the
Sith occurs when Jedi Master Mace Windu is about to kill Palpatine
(the future emperor) in front of Anakin (the future Darth Vader).
Anakin said, "we must bring him back for trial by the senate,"
whereupon Mace responded that would do no good because Palpatine controlled the Senate, and
furthermore was too dangerous to be left alive. Anakin saw this with
his own eyes, and heard it with his own ears, and his republican
idealism was shattered. He thought the Jedi really believed in the
republic until he heard Mace Windu's admission that he could not
accept the senate's decision because the other side controlled the
senate. Anakin stood open-mouthed at that hypocrisy, able to say
only "this is not the Jedi way."
In other words, the Jedi are no different from the Sith - they pretend to support the republic only when it produces the results they want. If the other side is in control of the republic, they want to override the will of the government in favor of their own autocratic or perhaps theocratic decisions, as Obi-Wan admits in this exchange:
In other words, it's OK to overthrow a republic by force as long as the other side is in charge, and you truly believe the other side to be evil! But, as Anakin correctly responded after the dialogue above, if that is a valid argument, there can never be a republic, because every true believer thinks his opponents are evil. Die-hard liberal democrats are convinced that President Bush is evil. The far right is convinced that liberal judges are evil. Fundie Christians are convinced that Islam is evil. Fundie Moslems are convinced that Jews and Christians are evil.
Another fascinating incident occurs when Jedi master Obi-Wan hisses, "Only a Sith deals in absolutes," completely oblivious to the fact that that very statement is an absolute, and proving again that the "good" Jedi are not very different from the "evil" Sith.
Revenge of the Sith could have been constructed as a simple-minded black and white kiddie movie and it would still be great fun, just as the original Star Wars film was. But this is more than a kiddie movie, and not just because of the PG-13 rating. It actually manages to reveal a lot about the relationship between human nature, religion, and the forms of government we choose. Anakin's journey to the dark side of the force would not be credible if he were moving from absolute good to absolute evil, but it is perfectly believable when the script reveals that Jedi and Sith are really not very different. In fact, there are several things the Jedi could have done to keep Anakin on their team in the battle. If Mace Windu had not revealed himself to be a hypocrite and had simply agreed to bring Palpatine back for trial instead of trying to kill him in cold blood, Anakin would not have turned. If the Jedi Council had not arrogantly offended the heroic and powerful Anakin by excluding him from full master status, he would never have turned. In the long run, it was not merely that the dark side lured Anakin, but also that the Jedi's own monarchial tendencies and failure to live up to their own ideals pushed him away. There is no cynic more cynical than a disillusioned idealist.
Once it became apparent to Anakin that both sides in his galaxy were agreed that republicanism was not for them, and that only an oligarchy of aristocratic wise minds could truly rule the galaxy properly, then it was only a matter of which oligarchy would prevail and whose mind would rule. As he told Padme, Anakin figured it might as well be his own mind, so he planned to join Palpatine for as long as it was convenient, then eventually to kill the emperor and run the entire show himself, shaping the galaxy the way he wanted it. That was what he learned from both the Jedi and the Sith.
Despite this surprisingly nuanced view of the Jedi/Sith struggle, European viewers have insisted on seeing the parallels between the Bush administration and the Empire, while completely ignoring the complexity of the underlying message. Anti-Bush liberal democrats, like the Jedi, used to love democracy and the will of the people - until that will resulted in conservative control of the government and court appointments, at which time they felt that only they truly knew what was good for the country, vox populi be damned! Both die-hard liberals and die-hard conservatives are true believers who hold their alleged moral absolutes to be more sacred than their choice of governmental forms. This is especially true for those people who believe strongly in absolute good and evil. If one feels his beliefs are unquestionably right - based on the word of God, for example - his instincts will always be essentially undemocratic. The very nature of most religion is autocratic, not democratic, because God's will is involved. I never head of any religion that allows a vote on which actions should be sinful, and requires the minority voters to comply. Religion and democracy go together like oil and water. This is the real reason why America's founding fathers insisted on a separation of Church and state. Most religions require a belief in a single correct path ordained by God, an absolute set of rules which must not be compromised. That is, ipso facto, undemocratic. The very nature of democracy is compromise, accepting and living by rules that you voted against, while working to regain the government by convincing the majority of the people that the rules should be changed. Jedi and Sith are both actually religions, each of which believes it is the one and only true faith. Mace Windu was going to kill Palpatine because he believed in his heart that he knew what was good for the people, irrespective of what the people themselves might want.
The very intelligent question raised by the film is this: does anyone truly believe in democracy, or would both sides replace democracy with their own autocratic rule if they had the opportunity? Given human nature, is a turn to empire the natural tendency of any republican government? John Adams and Thomas Jefferson truly believed in the principles of democracy and the "loyal opposition," and I believe that neither of them would have restored monarchy even if given a free pass to impose their side's philosophy over the other, but Adams and Jefferson have been dead for many years, and their democratic ideals have largely died with them. In my own heart, I believe and fear that both liberals and conservatives would agree to a monarchy or oligarchy as long as their side was guaranteed to be in charge. In general, believers hold their positions on the issues, positions which really represent their conceptions of good and evil, to be more important than the abstract principles of government itself, and therefore would choose to live in an empire in which their side rules rather than in a democracy in which the other side may rule from time to time.
Or maybe I am just a cynic. But if I am, Revenge of the Sith joins me in that cynicism. Thus was it fitting that in the battle between Palpatine and Yoda, they tried to destroy one another in the senate chambers by hurling the symbols of democracy at one another. That symbolizes how aristocrats think, especially if they are also religious or moralistic zealots. "Only I know what is best for the people. Fuck the republic, unless I can use it to get my way!"
It is that very accurate human perspective on both the nature of Empire and the conversion of Anakin that makes Revenge of the Sith more than a kiddie movie, and raises it in certain ways even above the level of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. In many ways, this is the most intelligent and realistic political movie in many decades. It is actually possible to see how Anakin could have turned to the Dark Side of the Force.
I do have to make a suggestion to the Empire, however. They need to hire a P.R. firm and give the Dark Side a new name. I mean shouldn't Anakin have suspected that something called The Dark Side was actually evil? Even the assertive Ann Coulter is not bold enough to call her neo-con philosophy "The Dark Side of Democracy." Instead of referring to it in conversations with Anakin as "The Dark Side" of the Force, Emperor Palpatine should simply call it "Neo-Jedism". Here's how a Presidential Press Secretary would phrase it: "Yes, lad, the council members are Ur-Jedi, while we Sith are Neo-Jedi. We prefer to use the entire Force, also including its untapped passionate resources rather than just the contemplative side."
Of course, nuanced politics and the nature of empires are not the real guts of Star Wars movies. After all, we are not watching C-span. The real allure of the first Star Wars film was its ability to inspire a childlike sense of wonder. When I was a young parent, we were too poor to afford baby sitters, and we lived in Miami, so the big multi-screen drive-ins were our entertainment of choice. Every Friday night, after a typical period of restlessness and complaining, our two boys would eventually curl up and sleep in the back seat, and we'd be able to relax for a few hours and catch a double feature. One Friday, as we were watching some long-forgotten movie, we realized that our boys were not going to sleep. Oh, sure, our film was just as uninteresting to them as ever, but they were standing up on the back seat, looking out of the back window, watching another screen, transfixed, saying nothing except an occasional "look at that!" For two hours they rarely took their eyes from that screen, even though it was far away, at an angle, and soundless. The year was 1977, and the film in the rear window was Star Wars. The boys were only three and five, and such was the power and magic of Star Wars that it would become their world and a good sized chunk of my own. Budget be damned, we were watching it in a real theater the very next day.
I can't see the world through the eyes of a five year old these days, but I think the adventure portion of Sith is terrific. There are beautiful and strange sights to behold. There are moments of suspense and there are even intense, frightening moments, because Revenge of the Sith truly earns its PG-13 rating and may scare the daylights out of younger children. It is a lot darker and scarier than the original Star Wars, but it's also much slicker. Compared to the days of the first two films, the use of digital effects has substantially raised the bar on hand-to-hand fight scenes, alien landscapes, and space battles. Revenge of the Sith offers magnificent alien cities, slickly designed interiors, intense space battles, bizarre creatures, infernal machines, and forbidding landscapes. There are also moments of dark beauty - Padme's funeral, for example, is spectacularly imagined and as gorgeous as anything you've ever seen on screen.
The film also has some weaknesses worth mentioning, but the often maligned plot is not one of them. While everything does proceed in predictable fashion, as some critics have noted, what else could it have done? The film is hamstrung by its position as part three of a six part series. We know what has come before and after this film, so the potential for surprises is limited. The key point with Revenge of the Sith is not what happens but how it happens. It happens in a very impressive and surprisingly complex fashion.
So what are the weaknesses?
Well, there is Hayden Christensen. What is wrong with that boy? I would joke that he is auditioning for Team America 2, except that he is too wooden to be a puppet. Natalie Portman isn't much better. Of course, how good could they be with dialogue like this:
“You’re so beautiful.”
And let's talk light saber fights, shall we? Look, let's be honest. These are all exactly the same. The first one ever, back in the 1970s, was fun. The rest of them have been re-runs. The fight between Mace Windu and Palpatine is boring. The fight between Count Dooku and Obi-Wan is boring. And there are also light saber battles between Obi-Wan and Anakin, and between Palpatine and Yoda. Was it necessary to have every possible combination square off? At times I was looking to see whether I was still watching a movie, or if perhaps Jim Ross and Mean Gene Okerlund had set up a desk at ringside. Portions of those fights dragged on interminably. And how boring is it to watch Anakin and Obi-Wan take on a score of troopers armed only with their little light toys, while the troopers fire a few thousand rounds with automatic weapons and miss every single shot, despite shooting from point-blank range. My theory is that Lucas knows his films are quite long, so he inserts a six minute light saber duel every half hour in order to allow for a bathroom break. You have to whizz? Wait for the ominous buzzing that presages the appearance of a hand-held light beam, then head for the exit sign. Assuming normal kidneys, you'll be back in your seat exactly as someone's hand gets cut off. On the other hand, there are also some good fight scenes. For example, the battle between Obi-Wan and General Grievous is unique, spirited, imaginative, and wild. Not to mention noisy.
And what about the logic behind the choices of where to hide the twins? Let's see, how shall we hide them so that Vader and Palpatine will never find them? Well, one will be raised by Senator Organa. Yeah, that'll be unsuspicious, when the senator who saved Yoda suddenly shows up with a baby, even though his wife wasn't pregnant. Palpatine will never think anything is suspicious about that! Oh, and the other twin? We'll hide that child by having him raised by his own family on his home planet. Huh? If that plan fooled Vader and Palpatine, it is no wonder that they lost control of the galaxy. They may have some awesome scores on the religion portion of their SATs, but their IQ tests may not have returned such impressive results.
Oh yeah, did I mention that nobody was aware that Padme was carrying twins until the actual birth? Nobody. None of the Jedi or Sith with their top-secret mental powers, nor any of the doctors who were presumably caring for her. The republic has some awesome technology for space travel, but they need a little work on pre-natal care. Come to think of it, they could also use a little tune-up in the program that teaches troopers to fire their weapons.
Those are relatively minor issues. There is one major one. There is the lack of an interesting, human hero. I would be tempted to say that Revenge of the Sith is the best of the six films because it has so much going for it, but I can't say that because it simply suffers from taking itself much too seriously. The one thing that truly made the first two films fun was Han Solo, the wisecrackin' reluctant hero. I don't know how George Lucas could have failed to realize that Solo, not the boring Skywalker siblings, was the real star and the main appeal of the first trilogy. Somewhere along the line, the director of American Graffiti somehow lost sight of the importance of those small lives with everyday moments which go on as usual within great events. People struggle to feed their kids, hustle a buck, repair their cars, get drunk on Friday night, and have a few laughs after work. Han Solo was there to remind us that old spaceships fall apart, to prick the bubble of everyone's faux-aristocratic self-importance, and to make the whole thing ... real. He was the true spirit of democracy, the real voice of the people. Revenge of the Sith could have used him. Take away twenty minutes of the same old light saber crap and add twenty minutes of some real person like Solo, and Revenge of the Sith would be one of the greatest movies in history.
Well, not just based on that one issue. Also, Yoda should be fed into one of those wood chipper things from Fargo. I guarantee that I will buy a ticket to Episode Seven if Lucas guarantees that some bad guys will make a new pool table from a Yoda Chainsaw Massacre. Or, even better, Yoda should always be accompanied and pooped on by Triumph the Insult Dog, just as medieval kings were accompanied by jesters.
Even as self-impressed and pretentious as it is, Revenge of the Sith has enough wonder, drama, imagination, heroism, action, and complexity to satisfy everyone who wants to see how the iconic series gets tied together. There are plenty of moments that turned me into a five year old boy standing in the back seat, transfixed by the magic and scope of it all. With Han Solo and without Yoda it would have been a better movie than The Empire Strikes Back. It is already a good enough movie to remove the social stigma of being a Star Wars fan, at least temporarily.
So take heart, nerds. Loving Star Wars is actually kinda cool at this moment.
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