Retrospective | Autobiographic Allegory Framed ‘Star Wars: Episode III’
Last year, I watched all 33-and-counting Godzilla feature films ahead of the release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters. This year, I’ve undertaken a programming schedule that is much more manageable in scope, but even closer to my heart. This is The Road to ‘Rise of Skywalker’ Rewatch!
At the midpoint of Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith, there’s a scene that’s uncharacteristic for the series in its quiet moodiness. Anakin and Padmé seem to be connected through the Force to one another across town as the sun sets on Coruscant. Anakin is plainly torn between two polar yearnings: his loyalty to the Jedi Order, which has shaped him into a hero but has denied him his agency and the freedom to love ever since it inducted him as a child; and Chancellor Palpatine, the paternal figure who has given him much-missing familial affection and advice for just as many years, but who Anakin has discovered is essentially the Devil incarnate. Padmé is anxious, sensing that her world and family is at a turning point now, thought she does not fully understand why. The future is upon them, history about to change. Their story is about to take a precipitous nosedive into tragedy. Perhaps Anakin has, on some level, divined what lays ahead for him, and feels welded to a fate that was written for him long ago.
Lucas’ presumptive final film is, in its own way, an autobiography by way of allegory. His first marriage, to editor Marcia Lucas (née Griffin), ended acrimoniously in 1983. George, once a counter-cultural avante garde film school kid who hated “the suits” had, in the wake of Star Wars, surrounded himself with a technological, bureaucratic empire of his own design in the form of the elaborate Skywalker Ranch production facility and Lucasfilm’s various corporate media pursuits. Marcia didn’t understand his obsession with building out the expensive and remote headquarters, which she likened to an inverted pyramid sitting upon a shriveling pea. After all, Star Wars seemed to be winding down, as Lucas swore not to return to the property until technology had caught up to his imagination. What cash cow would justify all this? Wasn’t he always talking about wanting to return to the small art movies he’d started out making?
The pair grew apart amidst the flurry of Lucasfilm-related activity. By the time of Return of the Jedi, she had drifted beyond George’s reach, frustrated with his insular pursuits, his workaholism and obsession with the new toys he was building at the Ranch. After the divorce, in which he ceded fifty million dollars to her, George had Marcia all but blacklisted from the industry, to the point that her contributions to the Hollywood cinema of the ’70s and ’80s were virtually forgotten for a time.
The only Academy Award the Lucases ever won was Marcia’s, for her work editing Star Wars.
I can’t help but imagine George sitting in the edit bay on Episode III, watching Natalie Portman’s Padmé tell Anakin he’s going down a road she can’t follow just before he strangles her, and wonder if he realized the parallels between himself and the tragic hero of his own making. By the film’s end, Anakin has become subsumed by a suit of armor he can never step out of. He gazes out at the portentious superweapon of his new empire, beside his new master, to whom he is forever in bondage. He has given up everything to be here, but for what?
Sith begins with a swashbuckling set piece that’s essentially a live-action episode of the “Clone Wars” animated series, but then it proceeds to ever-so-gradually turns the screw until we’re in some Faustian nightmare orchestrated by a man who looks like a Lon Cheney character. In the action’s denoument, we linger on a private moment in which his coal-black form, set against a Hellish river of flame, silently betrays what might be the only moment of genuine concern his character will ever express.
George Lucas’s idiosyncratic strengths as a filmmaker — his innate understanding of sound, picture, and motion as powerful narrative and emotional tools — here outshine his shortcomings which, without the countervailing winds of Marcia or estranged producer Gary Kurtz, have plagued the previous two prequels. In Sith, we’re reunited with the Lucas who once opened a movie by having a tiny object comprised of ovals pursued by an immense object shaped like a shark’s tooth, then trusted the audience’s primordial lizard brains to understand the stakes implied by that geometry before they’d been introduced to a single character, much less one with a human face:
As Lucas’s final Star Wars film, Revenge of the Sith is a pure distillation of what he had been trying to do with the Star Wars project from the very beginning — it’s a melange of fairy tale morality, visual impact cinema, mythic overtures, and corn pone Old Hollywood melodrama. It’s sometimes lumped in with the other two prequels as “the bad Star Wars,” but there’s little comparison. Yes, it’s got some of the same predicable checklist of shortcomings that weight down The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, but those issues simply don’t undermine the work here to nearly the same extent. The world is richer and moodier than the previous two installments, thanks to a combination of the subject matter on hand, the evolution of VFX craft (everything just looks so much better than the flatly-lit, CD-ROM cutscene aesthetic of Clones), and more top-notch world-building that imagines a wider breadth of fantastical landscapes than we’ve seen elsewhere in the series to date.
There’s still a lot of walk-and-talk early on in this movie, as in Clones, but every time I watch it, I’m sucked into its bizarro “Masterpiece Theater” teleplay, which occasionally cuts away to alien apes fighting armies of cartoon robots only to return to its main-course Shakespearean tragedy.
Speaking of British television, I suspect that the Star Wars leads who were raised west of the Atlantic— and yes, I’m thinking of Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen here — were the ones most visibly lost in the prequels because of an American cultural inclination to root their performances in the naturalism long favored by Hollywood. A certain spirit of “play it small for the camera please, you don’t have to reach the back of the house” was doubtlessly drilled into them from the earliest days of their training. But that naturalism clashes with the wonky Space-Age Hamlet dialog George Lucas put in the mouths of his characters. In the original trilogy, Harrison Ford’s million-watt charismatic magnetism and willingness to bitch at George until he’d let him change the line worked, while Mark Hamill’s earnestness let him live as one with the world of the fantasy, because Mark clearly believed in the material as a fan. He got it. But all along, the supporting casts of Star Wars movies have been dominated by classically-trained, seasoned British actors who were well-versed in less naturalistic modes of stagecraft. Sir Alec Guiness, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee — George’s words seem to flow from their mouths with lyrical ease. And among this stately gallery of old white guys, perhaps none are more deserving of a Star Wars MVP award than one Ian Mutherfucking McDiarmid.
The Scottish actor first appeared as Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi, but he didn’t really get to develop his most famous character until the prequels. Revenge of the Sith is his chance to shine, and he knows it. He gets to play the paternal, warm-if-condescending Chancellor Palpatine in more compelling material for the character here than in either of the prior two episodes. But more importantly, he finally gets to drop trou and let loose with the most insane, scenery-chewing, glorious high camp villainy the series has ever known courtesy Palpatine’s Dark Sided alter-ego, Darth Sidious. There is absolutely zero shame, zero temperance in this performance. Put behind pounds of latex in a design meant to evoke the famous monsters of silver screen days of old, McDiarmid cackles and mugs with sheer, almost orgasmic delight as he finally gets to just be capital-E Evil. Lightning shooting from his fingertips, he bellows “Unlimited POWERRRR!!!” while John Williams’s orchestra slams the pedal to the fucking metal. It’s like — Ah, okay, Star Wars has officially arrived at long last, two and a half movies into the serial.
I cannot wait for McDiarmid to return in The Rise of Skywalker. Hearing his voice in the trailers brings back something I didn’t even realize I’d been missing from the newer films. McDiarmid graces Sith with one of the simplest and strongest scenes in all of the series, the opera house encounter with Anakin, in which he invites the troubled young man to his private box and plants yet another seed of doubt about the Jedi Order in his mind. Apparently, McDiarmid had laryngitis that day and initially didn’t want to shoot — you can hear a little extra croak in his voice, a happy accident that just adds a devilish je nae sais quoi to Star Wars’ ur-villain.
Episode III’s musical score is one of John Williams’ most grandiose contributions to the series. Almost every major leitmotif he’d created for Star Wars over the previous six films gets at least a nod here, in what Williams believed at the time to be his “final” (hah!) Star Wars symphony. We’ll find out whether the maestro outdoes himself in this regard come December.
But enough praise, let’s talk about those lingering, frustrating prequel flaws: There’s huge gaps in the story that would later have to get back-filled in by the “Clone Wars” TV show. (“What’s the deal with Order 66?” “The hell do you mean, ‘There’s heroes on both sides’?”) There’s too many ambiguous details that feel like they were meant to be explained — explanation being the primary sales pitch of the prequels, after all. Likely, they were left dangling because Lucas ran out of time or inclination to address them. If I ever get to do a one-shot Star Wars comic, it’ll be so I can share with all of you my excellent headcanon explainer for why Palpatine settled on the moniker “Vader” for his new apprentice, and just what exactly was actually going on with his weirdo monster face.
It’s increasingly recognized that Marcia Lucas’ contributions to the original Star Wars saved that movie in the edit, after the first editor seemed to fail to grasp the kind of propulsive energy it needed to work. Maybe it’s her touch that’s missing in the prequel trilogy. Like the previous two episodes, sometimes the editorial choices made in Sith really leave me scratching my head. Especially during the lightsaber duels, of which there’s at least two too many in this movie, it feels like they didn’t get the coverage they needed on set, resulting in a sense that some connective action is just missing. The dialog and performances occasionally still land with a thud, but at least this time the whole thing feels a little more sweeping. A little more “heightened silver screen sentimentality,” I suppose, and much less “daytime on ABC.” (Sometimes, the campiness is part of the fun, especially in a story that risks feeling as grimdark and dour as this one.)
At the end of Anakin’s part in the Star Wars tapestry, many years down the road from Revenge of the Sith, he will finally learn to let go of a world he sought to control and, in doing so, find his redemption in mythic self-sacrifice.
Lucas, too, eventually learned to let go. In 2012 he sold Lucasfilm to Disney and reportedly donated much of his vast personal wealth to philanthropy. He has since remarried, had a child, and in selling Lucasfilm, has allowed the torch of his invention to be passed to a new generation. Nothing could be a more quintessentially Star Wars story than that. Lucas’ assertion that “it’s like poetry, it rhymes” has become something of an online punchline — but sometimes, it really does.
And if you liked this, check out my video essay on the Galaxy Far, Far Away, Let’s Get Drunk and Talk About ‘Star Wars’: