[box cover]

Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith

20th Century Fox Home Video

Starring Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen,
Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, Frank Oz,
Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Smits, Anthony Daniels,
Christopher Lee, Bruce Spence, and Peter Mayhew

Written and directed by George Lucas


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Review by Alexandra DuPont                    


"So this is how democracy ends. To thunderous applause."

— Sen. Amidala, a.k.a. Padme Naberrie-Skywalker, Revenge of the Sith

"Obviously, there's a little bit of a stretch with the Death Star being started in this one and then, 20 years later, gets finished. But you know, they had supply problems and union disputes and a few design problems that they had to work out — so it took longer than you would think, even for the Empire."

— Writer/director George Lucas, on the Sith DVD commentary



Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith: The DVD: The FAQ

My opinion of Revenge of the Sith is as firm as my crush on Natalie Portman! Give a six-word review of Revenge of the Sith before I skip ahead to the discussion of the extras!

Bloody hell! It's not that bad!

Apologist!

Hardly!

My Phantom Menace review, 1999: "Those of you waiting in line for Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace are, in my opinion, setting yourselves up for a grave disappointment. Either that, or you're about to brainwash yourselves into the short-term, delusional embrace of a sub-par cinematic product — which is even worse."

My Attack of the Clones DVD review, 2002: "If these last two Star Wars movies have taught me anything, it's that all my prior rantings about Star Wars needing to be mythologically and thematically coherent and profound no longer apply. Those rantings were, in retrospect, most likely the justifications of a young adult who wanted to explain why she'd liked a pulp sci-fi/fantasy series so emphatically — and who gleefully adopted as her own the 'Power of Myth' mental gymnastics handed to her on a platter by Joseph Campbell and the Lucasfilm P.R. machine."

And so, as I more or less raved last May, I expected Sith to leave me suicidally depressed over my misspent youth. I was pleasantly surprised when it didn't.

In fact, I'll take my praise a step further:

If fans weren't in such a defensive (and completely understandable) hate-stance after the exposition bombs of Episodes I and II, I really do think that Episode III would be more universally welcomed as a solid Star Wars movie. Clunky dialogue notwithstanding, it's an almost-stately slice of message sci-fi about how tired, dithering bureaucracies can be torn down by people with firm agendas. It's kind of wonderful to watch the drawing-room vibe of the previous two installments crumble away onscreen — replaced by the end with the sense of mission that informs Episodes IV-VI.

The film's also self-contained enough to render the first two chapters almost completely irrelevant — with their salient plot points (Anakin and Padme are secretly in love, Anakin has a few anger-management issues, there's a war on) recapped efficiently in a few choice images and/or lines of dialogue. I expect that many hard-core fans will start their Star Wars viewing marathons with Sith — completely ignoring Phantom Menace and Clones — in the coming years, and they really won't have missed anything important. At all.

Has your opinion of Sith gotten any less bullish since that first viewing?

Oh God, yes. One now fully recognizes (and sort of campily enjoys) the utter grand-mal silliness of Darth Vader clomping around like Frankenstein and shouting "Nooooo!" — he might as well be shouting "Mendoooozzaaaa!," as I believe others have joked — after he's first assembled in his cyborg-samurai getup. And yes, the film's super-expository middle third doesn't bear up under repeat viewings. When you find yourself looking for Easter eggs in the background traffic on Coruscant during those clunky Anakin-Padme conversations, that's probably a bad sign. And yes, certain plot holes do become painfully obvious over time. (For example: Can someone explain to me why Palpatine is kind of voluntarily shooting himself with lightning during that fight with Mace Windu?)

But I'd still argue that Sith has a discipline missing from Episodes I and II. It tries to jettison every supporting character or subplot (with the exception of that cyborg Bin Laden, General Grievous, and some nice-looking stuff involving Wookiees; more on them in a second) that doesn't move the story forward. Important things are said with images instead of words. The special effects are better, but draw less attention to themselves.

Putting it another way: The first two prequels are what I call "landing strut" movies. Before digital effects, showing a spaceship extending its landing gear and plomping to the ground with any sort of believable physical weight was difficult; you only see it a few times in the original trilogy, and most of that turns up in Return of the Jedi. But the prequels are just chock-full of landings and gear-extending and dust kick-ups, and a landing sequence was actually lengthened in The Empire Strikes Back Special Edition. Is this because showing these landings was somehow crucial to the advancement of the story? No; it's because ILM now had the technical ability to show them. And of course, in narrative terms, it plays like a movie full of people parking their cars. Revenge of the Sith courts the landing strut a little less obviously, despite featuring an unholy amount of commuting — more than in the previous two prequels combined, I think.

Putting it yet another way: Jar-Jar Binks is in two crowd shots in Sith. And he never says a word. And remember Padme's superfluous, eyepatch-sporting bodyguard, Captain Typho? He has one or two lines. In a single long shot. Thank God.

Mostly, I think, there was just more mandatory story that had to be told: There wasn't time to blunder into subplots involving flying Shylockian junk-shop traders and fat-assed cows. The Clone Wars had to end, Anakin had to be seduced by Palpatine and the Dark Side of the Force, the Anakin/Padme romance had to end tragically, twins had to be born and hidden, Darth Sidious' co-conspirators and the Jedi Knights had to be wiped out, and there had to be an absolutely bitchin' lightsaber duel, preferably with lava, that ended with Anakin being set ablaze.

So that's the story of the movie, then?

Pretty much. Sith can be divided into four fairly tidy sections:


My pet theory is that Spielberg (who did some animatic work on Sith's final duel) and Coppola — possibly the only two guys on earth in a position to tell Mr. Lucas when he's doing something wrong — rode The Flannelled One early and often on the subject of Sith's pacing and structure. Also, Lucas hired Francis Ford Coppola's dialect coach, and it shows. All Star Wars dialogue is vaguely formal and/or silly — been to Tosche Station lately? — but delivered with proper conviction, the words have, at times, taken on an alien, timeless quality that feels a bit like myth. In Sith, there's a lot less of the cloying, stalkerish love-prattle between Anakin and Padme that nearly unmanned Clones, but what little there is is delivered in the zip-code of believability — even by Natalie Portman, a great actress who couldn't have sounded more embarrassed during the preceding four hours and change.

Even better, vast swaths of story are told without words, with tons of skillful cross-cutting. For example: As Anakin sits alone in the Jedi Temple, wondering whom he should be helping — Palpatine or the Jedi about to arrest Palpatine — he looks across the city at Padme's apartment. At the same time, she's looking across the city at the Jedi Temple. The calm, wordless connection that follows — a last-minute addition to the film, all of it accomplished with special effects and digital cameras and a couple of discreet zooms — may end up going down as one of the great Star Wars moments.

Now, all that said, I hasten to add that Sith is no New Hope or Empire Strikes Back: Those films have an urgency to them that Episode III could never muster. But Sith edges out Jedi — if only because Sith lacks Ewoks, and because Sith's Emperor comes off as more than a cackling, flour-dipped prune who speaks in sound bites while lightning spews out of his fingers.

Yeah, Ian McDiarmid's pretty great in this, isn't he?

He surpasses every expectation I had for the Palpatine/Emperor transformation. This is not said lightly. In Revenge of the Sith, you actually understand where he's coming from.

You actually, in a way, kind of like him.

Mr. McDiarmid — even in the very awful Star Wars movies, of which there are two — has demonstrated a gift for rolling silly lines around in his mouth and making them sound like Shakespeare. (I'm a huge fan of the way he says "I love democracy!" in Clones.) He's one of those classic, classy actors who actually seems to relish delivering his lines, without embarrassment, like he's facing off against Basil Rathbone in a 1930s serial. When Palpatine finally emerges in all his evil, lightning-scarred glory, sound designer Ben Burtt gives McDiarmid's line deliveries a sort of deep-bass echo — as if every word were traveling through Palpatine's larynx after being sung by a chorus in the bowels of Hell — and it is just wicked to the ears.

But in Sith, McDiarmid also gets to lay out a coherent philosophy to Anakin during one of their many confrontations. "Anakin, if one is to understand the great mystery, one must study all its aspects, not just the dogmatic, narrow view of the Jedi," he says, quite sensibly (in a line that may well have been script-doctored by Tom Stoppard, if the rumors are true). "If you wish to become a complete and wise leader, you must embrace a larger view of the Force. "

You know, who wouldn't get behind that?

Please notice that I keep bringing up the non-action bits as fine moments in the film. Given what's come before, do please note how incredible that is. One of my favorite scenes is the one where Palps begins working his seductive magic on Anakin in an opera house. It's like something out of The Godfather — and McDiarmid (who was suffering from some sort of laryngeal infection when they shot this scene, and used it) knows precisely how much fun to have with every melodramatic syllable.

(Nor is this the only blatant Coppola reference in the film; there's a moment where a grim-faced Yoda is talking to Anakin in front of some closed shades, with sunlight slatting the wee Jedi Master's face in chiaroscuro, and I half-expected Yoda to mutter "Fuckin' Saigon.")

I also love that Anakin is caught by both pride and a lie. He wants to learn the Dark Side of the Force to give Padme eternal life, but he's also fooled by Palpatine into believing there's a genuine Jedi conspiracy against the Chancellor. When Anakin bursts into the room at one crucial moment, all he sees is Mace Windu holding a lightsaber to an unarmed Palpatine's throat — and after what follows, no one really gets a chance to dissuade him from the notion that Mace was about to assassinate the man who runs the galaxy. For all I know, when he meets Obi-Wan again on the Death Star a couple of decades later, Anakin still thinks the Jedi hatched a plot to kill his boss. The overall sense is of a set of tumblers clicking into place, locking Anakin into his destiny. It's surprisingly tidy, and kind of merciless.

What's your take on the final lightsaber duel we all waited two decades to see?

The Darth Maul duel in Phantom Menace had far less drama, but better moves. And I could have done without the "Frogger"-ish bit on the (conveniently platform-like) lava robots — although I loved it when Anakin chased Obi-Wan up a spire that's slowly sinking into the magma. It's like the Burning of Atlanta from Gone with the Wind with lightsabers.

But the nice thing is that I was more interested in the drama within The Duel — in the way Obi-Wan is essentially in retreat for the entire battle; in the way he's actually doing a fairly inept job of trying to pull Anakin back from the brink of evil — than I was in how fast or well-choreographed or lava-coated the whole affair was.

This is, of course, exactly as it should be.

Okay, but I have some beefs.

Do tell.

General Grievous is dumb! He coughs like a sissy!

Yeah, he's silly — even if you've seen (and enjoyed) Clone Wars Vol. 2, which attempts to explain said cough as the result of a final Force fuck-you from Mace Windu. But again, like every problematic aspect of this film, it's just not the deal-breaker it would have been in the last two prequels. Plus, the shot where Grievous is coming at Obi-Wan with four lightsabers — two of them twirling like plasma saw-blades as they carve up the scenery — is one of my favorite images in the film.

Okay. Well, what the hell was Chewbacca doing there? He felt like special guest star Charles Nelson Reilly turning up the way he did!

Well, yes, he's completely extraneous — appearing in, like, five shots during the brief digressions on Kashyyk. If Yoda hadn't said his name at one point, a less-careful viewer might not even notice it was Chewie.

And Palpatine mentions those damned midiclorians! I thought we were rid of those!

True. But he brings them up in an ambiguous way that suggests, fairly subtly, that he manipulated the Force to bring about Anakin's "virgin birth." The Throne Room scene in Jedi may be a three-generation family reunion of sorts, though we'll never know for sure.

Well, there you have it — they don't even explain Anakin's virgin birth in detail! That sucks!

What is this, "Star Trek"? I'm delighted that this — and Palpatine's transformation from regular old guy to yellow-eyed-fright-mask old guy — are dealt with in ways that leave them open to discussion.

I think this is an important point, actually: The problem isn't that Lucas was vague or negligent in Sith about dealing with virgin births and midiclorians and whoever the hell that "Sifo Dyas" guy was that everyone kept talking about in Clones. No, the problem is that Lucas — in the previous two films — brought all that shit up in the first place.

It actually ties into why I'm in such a good mood about this film overall: It's actually worth discussing — and not just in those exhausting "did it rock or did it suck?" back-and-forths where everyone's a loser.

Revenge of the Sith is, in its simple, flawed way, a film of ideas — with a surprising ambivalence about Anakin's evil and the flabbiness of the Jedi bureaucracy. ("The Prophecy of the One Who Will Bring Balance to the Force" takes on some new wrinkles here, because it becomes apparent that a huge part of that prophecy involves tearing down the Jedi bureaucracy, which is in fact too "dogmatic" for its own good.) I had no idea Lucas had a movie like this left in him, and I can't wait to see what he does next. As a much-abused fan who came of age during the first trilogy's original release, I'm overjoyed.

Catch any fun little background details?

Indeed. Keep an eye on the lower part of the screen after the crash landing — during that shot where a skybus approaches the massive bi-level parking garage — and you'll see a very tiny Millennium Falcon coming in for a landing.

Does Sith make Phantom Menace and Clones better movies?

Not so much. You do see the groundwork Lucas was trying to lay in those films a bit more clearly, but said groundwork turns out to have been, again, almost totally unnecessary — Revenge of the Sith is surprisingly self-contained. I'll be pretending that Sith is Episodes I-III combined, myself.

So do you think this whole ten-year "Special Edition"/prequel adventure has been worth it?

Damn good question. I'd argue yes.

Artistically, Lucas only gave us one solid movie, plus another hour's worth of decent action bits — and you sure could argue that he mucked with the legacy of his own classics so gleefully that he ladled the sauce on his own goose-cooking.

But.

He also beta-tested whole new digital cameras and cinematography techniques. He probably doubled the industry's special-effects vocabulary. He solved a bunch of very sexy bureaucratic and logistical problems in the name of saving himself some money. He created a viable self-financed studio where Coppola couldn't. He raised the bar for DVD production. He (once again) spearheaded a cultural conversation about the quality of theatrical presentation. And — in a move that seems surprisingly ballsy coming from a guy this genial — he used his internationally beloved franchise to just basically pioneer the hell out of digital cinema and make it a viable mainstream option in a way that could totally democratize filmmaking over the next two decades.

So yes — I've been mean. But Lucas, in his own loopy-billionaire way, has been great.

*          *          *

Uh-huh. So how about those extras?

Well, at this point, Star Wars DVDs suffer from that same unfortunate side effect of success that afflicts Star Wars digital effects: We're so conditioned to expect excellence, we only take note of the flaws. Lucasfilm and Fox Home Video have, essentially, elevated our standards into the stratosphere.

And so — dodgy box art aside — it goes without saying that many feature films would covet the effects budget of the Revenge of the Sith DVD menus; that the extras are generous and wide-ranging; that sound and picture are jaw-dropping digital transfers (even if the picture has that same shiny-fake quality that made Clones look more artificial at home than it did in theaters); that flutter edge enhancement anamorphic gain blah blah &tc. ad nauseam. I believe the tech-heads are calling this two-disc set "reference quality," and with good reason.

But frankly, I'm more interested in the ideas that technology conveys. Which is why I must register mild annoyance with Disc One's surprisingly dreary commentary track by Lucas, producer Rick McCallum, animation director Rob Coleman and visual effects supervisors John Knoll and Roger Guyett.

Yes, this yack-track is fast-moving, and yes, it's funny to learn that they literally threw a kitchen sink in the opening space battle, and yes it's frankly nice to not have sound-design genius Ben Burtt yammering at length about his lust for drowning out John Williams' score with Wilhelm Screams. But the fact remains: Lucas once again sounds sleepy and/or bored talking about Star Wars in a way that he's absolutely didn't on last year's fabulous THX 1138 DVD. And when he isn't saying stuff along the lines of, "Gosh, Ian McDiarmid is great in this" or "This is The Tragedy of Darth Vader" or revealing that there's a completely different version of Anakin's turn to the Dark Side sitting on a hard drive somewhere, the rest of the fellas talk almost exclusively about the logistics of digital effects.

For technicians and film-school students, this is undoubtedly essential stuff. For me, it was excruciating to watch scenes where obvious ideas and references merited discussion — and instead, I got John Knoll telling me that Peter Mayhew picked up a sack of corn and the effects artists replaced it with Yoda. I'm just saying. (Also, why is Ben Burtt, who took a smaller co-editing gig on this film, such a minimal presence throughout this DVD?)

Does George Lucas make a commentary-track statement that makes it sound like he's glad to be rid of Star Wars, as he did on the THX DVD?

Well, he closes the Sith commentary with the following:

"This ... started out as one simple little movie that would take me maybe two years to make, and then I'd go on to other things — and it turned out to be 20 years of my life. And it was a real challenge to make, and it started to define my life — which is not where I expected to be. But I'm happy to have gone on this ride and met the challenges the film presented to me. And I'm happy with the way it turned out. I'm happy with all the episodes. I'm happy with the overall story. And I'm very relieved that I made it to the end, to the finish line, and the world is still here to see it."

How politic. Anyway. Disc Two is loaded to the gills — though it's probably slighter than previous prequel sets, and a smidge less enthusiastic.

Under the "Documentary and Featurettes" menu is a pretty great centerpiece doc, "Within a Minute: The Making of Episode III." Producer/director Tippy Bushkin's 1:18:26 feature — while not even remotely in the league of Episode I's excellent, candid making-of doc — adopts a pretty cool conceit: It decides to examine in ridiculous detail the "26 shots, 1185 frames, 910 artists" and "70,441 man hours" that went into 49 seconds of Scene 158 — the Mustafar duel.

Hosted by producer Rick McCallum, "Within a Minute" wants to do nothing less than put a human face on the lower end of the end-credits roll. So it does a sort of flow-charty breakdown of every single department and process involved in that 49 seconds — scriptwriting, pre-visualization, catering, production design, set and prop construction, hair and make-up, costumes, acting, stunts, directing, cinematography, sound recording, editing, visual-effects supervision, 3D matchmoving and layout, animation, digital matte painting, lighting and rendering, digital and practical modeling, motion control, rotoscoping, compositing, sound design, scoring, sound mixing, and final screening. And more. Egad.

It's kind of funny to watch Lucas tell Ewan McGregor to concentrate on a letter "Y" plastered to a green-screen, and also to watch Ken Wannberg bitch — in front of Lucas and Burtt — about Williams' music getting buried by Burtt's sound mix. But unfortunately, despite its comprehensive scope and noble intentions, "Within a Minute" is probably the least interesting of the three feature-length prequel making-of docs. Its vast-overview structure means we never really get to know anyone. And it can all feel a bit like a Web-doc highlight reel — with (God forgive me) a few too many shots of ferocious concentration around computer monitors and shout-outs to desk-bound office managers. But still: "Within a Minute" does lend a terrifying sense of scale to the Sith production pipeline — a pipeline that any producer can tell you is nothing less than a feat of bureaucratic genius.

There are also two featurettes under this menu:


That's fascinating. Spill about the deleted scenes already!

Okay. All of them have optional intros by Lucas & Co. — and I should warn you that they are, for the most part, mind-bogglingly dull:


There's also an Xbox game demo and trailer for "Star Wars Battlefront II," a game trailer for "Star Wars: Empire at War," a still gallery of production photos (about 106 of them — including a truly frightening cheesecake shot of Chewbacca that will no doubt illustrate the slash-fiction of furries everywhere), plus galleries of one-sheet posters and the outdoor print campaign.

Everything else is pretty much stuff you've already seen through the miracle of the World Web Intranet: There are the 15 of the 18 quite-entertaining Web documentaries that appeared at StarWars.com, two trailers and 15 TV spots (one of them labeled, I shit you not, "Sith Happens"), and the "A Hero Falls" music video.

BTW, score geeks trying to assemble their own complete "promo" Sith soundtrack album will be delighted to hear that there's unreleased music scattered pell-mell among the Disk Two extras.

Any Easter Eggs?

Of course — all of them on Disc One. I crib mightily from The Digital Bits:


(DuPont here: On my Sony player, I had to press "Enter" after typing "11," "3," and "8," for whatever it's worth.)

Anyway, all this hassle gets you a rapping and breakdancing Yoda, backed by four frontin' Clonetroopers — after which Yoda says, in Frank Oz's voice, "That voice, hard on my throat it is." You can also watch this goofy video (for the moment, anyway) online here, via Google Video.

There's no blooper reel that I'm aware of, which is unfortunate — because I was, like all of you, hoping to see one of those fat-assed cows from Clones get dipped in boiling lava to the jaunty strains of the Cantina Band. But whatever.

Now I'm retired.

Alexandra DuPont
dupont@dvdjournal.com

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