[This review was originally published at Christianity Today.]

To steal a phrase from a certain dark lord, “This will be a day long remembered.”

Star Wars, Episode Three: Revenge of the Sith, the fastest Star Wars film ever built, packs in more action than its two predecessors — The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones — combined. The opening crawl begins with the word “War!” and, quicker than you can say “Into the garbage chute, flyboy!”, two things become clear:

  • This is not going to be another episode in which action only occasionally interrupts people standing around and discussing politics. The prequels have suffered heavy laser blasts from both critics and fans for lacking the snappy dialogue and the high-stakes action of Episodes Four, Five, and Six. While Sith is still sorely lacking, it’s a big improvement on its two predecessors.
  • Lucas was right to warn us that Sith wouldn’t be kid-friendly. Beheadings, severed hands, third-degree burns … if there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re in the movie that it’s farthest from. Is this gratuitous violence? No. These sometimes gruesome scenes are necessary to portray the temporary triumph of evil while “good guys” suffer the wages of their sins.

ACTION!

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Strap yourselves in! Sith jumps into lightspeed action from the get-go. In the opening shot (an obvious nod to A New Hope), we’re plunged headlong into a chaotic combat zone. The Separatist Alliance wickedly assaults Republic ships in the skies over Coruscant, the Republic’s failing heart. Early manifestations of X-Wings, TIE fighters, and Star Destroyers pyromaniacally careen and collide in the biggest “star war” adrenalin-rush since the Death Star battle of ’77, marred only by its robbery of cockpit banter from previous films. (Han Solo should sue.)

In the thick of things, young Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and his Jedi mentor Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) strive to rescue Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who has been kidnapped by a warlord called General Grievous. Part-monster, part machine, Grievous looks like a junkyard Transformer, sounds like a Russian war veteran with smoker’s lung, and wields several lightsabers at once. He also has a tendency to turn tail and run when he meets a real threat… like Skywalker.

Anakin, despite his new unruly hairdo, has become more mature and responsible since Attack of the Clones. Obi-Wan, who’s “not brave enough for politics,” grins like a proud uncle and lets Anakin go his own way to become a Jedi “poster boy” amongst Republic Senators. But away from the spotlight, Anakin seeks covert liaisons with his secret, and pregnant, wife Padmé (Natalie Portman). “Our baby is a blessing,” says Padmé, and Anakin agrees that the news is “the happiest moment of my life.”

Dark dreams disrupt Anakin’s bliss, convincing him that Padmé is in danger. Yoda, who does double-duty here as a Jedi therapist and a sweatsuit-wearing action hero, warns Anakin: “The fear of loss is a path to the Dark Side. Attachment leads to jealousy — the shadow of greed this is.” He exhorts Anakin to surrender anything he fears to lose, declaring that “Death is a natural part of life.”

But Anakin’s battle against fear, jealousy, and greed is — as we all know — a losing one. His loyalties are divided. The Jedi distrust him, lecture him, and show little concern for his dark premonitions, while Palpatine showers Anakin with flattery. The stage is set for the last temptation of Skywalker. Determined to protect Padmé, he makes a Faustian bargain.

Meanwhile, Darth Sidious is baiting the democratic Republic to vote for its own destruction. Jedi Master Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) smells trouble brewing, but he’s never heard of “Order 66,” the satanic-sounding trap that will spring upon the Jedi. All that remains is for the nefarious Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) to enable Anakin’s ascent to power at the right hand of a Sith lord.

CULMINATION!

You can feel the Republic’s infrastructure crumbling. Lucas takes a note from The Godfather in a montage of Jedi knights falling victim to traps (a sequence that would have carried much more weight if only viewers had come to know these Jedi, see them in their full glory, and comprehend the pain of their downfall). Despite another exhibition of Yoda’s “Forcibility” against his foes, there will be no one to stop them this time. As in The Return of the King, the drama descends into a volcanic abyss for the culminating struggle of Teacher versus Mentor. Call it the saga’s “Darth nadir.”

Lucas’s greatest success in Revenge of the Sith is this: We can’t help but sympathize with Anakin as he surrenders to the Dark Side. Lo and behold, Darth Vader did not strive to be a heartless villain. He became one by trying to protect the one he loved, going blind to the greater good in the process. The stakes are finally high enough to earn gasps, and the ensuing tragedy is almost Shakespearean. Three intensely emotional lightsaber showdowns — two of which invert the famous Luke/Vader/Emperor face-off of Return of the Jedi, and another that severs bonds of friendship — stir up some of the operatic drama we remember from duels in Empire and Jedi. We’re drawn, at last, to the edges of our seats.

Simultaneously, Lucas discovers what actors are for… acting! He throws a switch, and suddenly Christensen, Portman, and McGregor come alive, emoting as if things really matter.

Lucas choreographs them through a virtuosic sequence culminating in the descent of a devil who resembles specters that lurked in The Seventh Seal, The Fellowship of the Ring, and The Passion of the Christ. As Sidious endeavors to build a better monster, we’re suddenly in the territory of Frankenstein. Intercut with these culminating visions of darkness and deformity are images of grief, despair, and finally, a glimmer of hope. With all of the dark drama of Titanic sinking, Darth Vader rises. The power of myth surges through the veins of the saga again just as it did in the glory days.

We’re sent off in a rush of increasingly familiar characters (Tarkin!), corridors (the blockade runner!), and other surprises. Thus, the circle is now complete, and our questions — most of them, anyway — are finally answered.

But new questions are sure to linger in moviegoers’ minds….

QUESTIONS!

Did Lucas intend Sith to be a commentary on contemporary politics? He denies it, but you’ll wonder. Padmé watches the Republic crumble, and remarks, “So this is how liberty ends — to thunderous applause.” Dooku and Grievous resemble a recently overthrown warlord and a smash-and-run terrorist, both hunted by an elected leader armed with emergency executive powers. Something’s familiar when Anakin shouts, “If you’re not for me, then you’re my enemy!”

Beyond the politics, there’s a powerfully provocative spiritual subtext. Few tales of pride have led to harder falls. But Anakin isn’t just arrogant; he’s suffering from alienation caused by the insensitivity and neglect of his Jedi “fathers.” Like Gladiator’s villain, he strikes because he’s been treated with contempt and denied the love he desires. And like The Godfather’s Michael Corleone, he’s sold his soul to gain power and ensure his family’s safety. Lucas vividly illustrates that a violent man convinced of his own righteousness is dangerous indeed. But does he realize that his precious Jedi illustrate the cost of callous leadership?

Deciding that desirable ends justify sinister means, Anakin writes off the Jedi as “evil.” Obi-Wan answers, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes!” Does Obi-Wan mean that there are no absolutes? If so, then why does he absolutely disagree with Anakin’s perspective? Or perhaps he means that it’s dangerous to make oversimplifications. If so, that’s a lesson Kenobi forgets in later episodes. Luke must defy Obi-Wan in Return of the Jedi to prove that Vader is not “absolutely” evil.

And what about the Force? It’s increasingly hard to believe that this invisible power actually “binds the galaxy together” in the end. For years, Christian moviegoers have debated whether “the Force” might be a good metaphor for God. This film seals the deal — the Force is not good enough to save the universe. It remains, in the end, something that both the Jedi and the Sith treat as a commodity, something we should get and learn to manipulate for our own purposes, good or evil.

Episode Two’s references to “the will of the Force” suggest that this power is sentient, but nobody ever stops to wonder what that “will” might be. In The Lord of the Rings and Raiders of the Lost Ark, there was “another will at work,” an Authority to serve, a Higher Being intervening to redeem a mess made by well-intentioned but insufficient heroes. In Star Wars, no one asks any Higher Power for help. Thus, the galaxy seems pretty much doomed, because — Jedi and Sith alike — they’re all corrupt. There’s apparently no Higher Power they believe can save them — not even in the afterlife. They’re on their own.

Moreover, it’s bewildering to hear Yoda nonchalantly claim that a Jedi should reject “attachments.” Doesn’t Luke save the galaxy in Episodes Five and Six by rejecting that philosophy and serving his “attachment” to Han, Leia, and ultimately his father? Even worse, Yoda declares that “death is natural” and that we should not let it trouble us. Why, then, is he distraught over the corpses of murdered colleagues? Death is unnatural . . . it was not a part of God’s plan for creation. It’s a natural part of a fallen world, yes, but we recoil from it and grieve over it because it is a flaw, not an ideal. It’s evidence that the world needs of a bold, benevolent redeemer, not an insensitive, dispassionate savior.

AGGRAVATION!

You’re unlikely to hear much discussion of these things. Star Wars fans are sticklers for detail, and it’s not wise to upset a fanboy. Sith gives them plenty to complain about.

Disgruntled fans will target the bland screenwriting. For every brilliant action scene, there’s a spectacularly lame punchline that any moviegoer on the planet could improve upon. Jedi may be masters of stuffy diplomacy, but Han Solo and Princess Leia could teach them about smart, sarcastic comebacks. Anakin and Padme’s “romantic” exchanges are the stuff of cheap teen romance novels. It’s painful to hear Yoda, so eloquently mysterious in The Empire Strikes Back, respond to the Emperor’s threats by quipping, “Not if anything to say about it I have!” No wonder the Republic collapsed.

Continuity problems will drive perfectionists to distraction: “In Episode Six, Princess Leia said she could remember her mother. How could that be?” “Why doesn’t Obi-Wan recognize Threepio and R2D2 in A New Hope?” “Vader could sense that Luke was his son, but not that Leia was his daughter?” Those who care about such things seem to have been made to suffer.

A special edition with severe revisions may be necessary to improve some serious errors in judgment. Obi-Wan’s poorly animated reptilian steed should never have escaped the animator’s computer. Whoever taught Wookies to impersonate Tarzan… terminate him, immediately. Darth Vader’s arrival onscreen is a mix of brilliance and lunacy — the helmet is reverently introduced, but Vader’s first steps are awkward and embarrassing.

Perhaps the most distressing development is the way in which constant revelations of implausible interconnections keep shrinking this galaxy into something resembling Mr. Lucas’s Neighborhood. Darth is Luke’s father, Leia is Luke’s sister, Boba Fett’s papa was the original stormtrooper, and that jittery protocol droid was Vader’s childhood project. Now we learn that another popular hero, whose appearance here is entirely gratuitous, has been Yoda’s buddy all along. What will the upcoming Star Wars television series reveal? That Han Solo was Aunt Beru’s illegitimate son? That a young Jabba crawled out of Jar-Jar’s nose?

Dwelling on these details, you can dismantle the whole saga, just as Luke Skywalker wiped out the Death Star by bulls-eyeing a vulnerable spot. But we shouldn’t condemn the whole enterprise for a few loose screws. While it falls short of Four and Five, Episode Three is easily as compelling as the climactic Return of the Jedi, and it’s definitely the most visually enthralling installment. It’s not as good as I hoped it would be, but it’s far better than I expected.

APPRECIATION!

Some gratitude is in order. Through Star Wars, Lucas revolutionized many aspects of filmmaking. He wove mythologies, religions, cliffhangers, and Akira Kurosawa films together into a fascinating hybrid. He emphasized that spiritual realities are as important as material realities. A parade of popular directors — James Cameron, Michael Bay, the Wachowskis, Peter Jackson — have built careers out of resources he invented. And Star Wars lingo has influenced language from the playground to the White House. For fans and everyone else, these movies have altered the world, usually for the better.

So, is this truly the end of Star Wars? “Difficult to see. Always in motion the future is.” Until we know, let’s be thankful for an unforgettable journey and a story that, like any great myth, gives us glimpses “through a glass darkly” of things essential and true. Virtue, courage, patience, peace, self-control, love … the Good Side are they. To borrow a line from Obi-Wan, “We’ve taken our first steps into a larger world.”

 

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