The Phantom Nuance

Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith

I will not complain about the artless dialogue, George Lucas’ need to stuff every frame with digital wonders that aren’t very wondrous, or the truly amazing trick of turning Samuel L. Jackson and many other high-grade thespians into bad, boring actors. Those are givens, and if you expected anything different out of Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith, that was your mistake.

But even putting all that aside, Sith a terrible movie; it’s never dull, but also never cohesive, compelling, entertaining, suspenseful, rousing, or resonant. The oft-noted problems listed above aren’t the primary culprits, though; better movies have survived worse. The troubles with Sith — and the two previous prequels — are larger: conception, narrative arc, tone, and pacing, all related to a failure by Lucas to acknowledge what, exactly, the prequels represent, and to shape the material accordingly.

And the raw materials of the movies suggest a startlingly detailed, mature, and nuanced vision, not just a popcorn space opera.

Revenge of the Sith should be the final piece of a puzzle that informs and adds depth to the original Star Wars trilogy. Because most of the audience already knows how Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader — the lava duel with Obi-Wan Kenobi has long been anticipated — the movie can’t get by on a simple depiction of events. Yet that’s exactly what Lucas offers.

In narrative building blocks and the accumulation of key detail, the prequels hint at what could have been: nothing less than the erosion of the polarized good-and-evil dichotomy underpinning the original trilogy’s easy moral universe. Instead of merely revealing how the events and situations of episodes IV through VI came to be, the prequels could have cast them in a completely new light.

The aim would have been to strip away the audience’s ideas about heroism and villainy, and turn that black-and-white world into a sea of muddled gray. The first Star Wars trilogy is a scrubbed and polished artifact of memory — like fondly misremembered youth — and this second trilogy should have had the cold and unforgiving reality of adulthood. And that approach would have then made it logical to watch the new trilogy after the original one, thus mitigating some of the technological and filmmaking disconnect between the two.

The Star Wars movies should not be about good and evil. They are, at heart, about a guy who switches affiliation after his first team pisses him off. Anakin is a Jedi pupil until the leaders of that group alienate him, at which point he joins the Dark Side. (It’s kind of like Roger Clemens leaving the Red Sox for the Yankees, ignoring the interim Blue Jays period.)

If you put aside Lucas’ clear intent regarding which characters are good and evil and instead look at their actions and motivations, you’ll begin to see this morally detached dynamic at work. In any objective reading, it’s impossible to tell which side can claim ethical superiority; the fact is that the Jedis and their allies are constantly at war with the Dark Side, and in armed conflict, the virtue of means and objectives depends on which side you’re on.

Lucas acknowledges this explicitly in Sith’s opening text crawl: “There are heroes on both sides. Evil is everywhere.”

If the prequels are successful at all, it’s in the serviceable way they extend the linear narrative backward while constricting its essential scope. What was initially about ... well, star wars is in the end merely a story about two generations of the Skywalker family, who happen to play key roles in a struggle for the future of the galaxy.

But beneath that simple surface is a rich pocket of ambiguity. Revenge of the Sith suggests — strongly — that the Jedis are not paragons of deliberative purity and goodness but flawed, dogmatic, and shortsighted.

The Jedi Council even considers a coup:

“If he does not give up his emergency powers after the destruction of Grievous, then he should be removed from office.”

“The Jedi Council would have to take control of the Senate in order to secure a peaceful transition — .”

” — and replace the Congress with Senators who are not filled with greed and corruption.”

Granted, this is the verbal exploration of a scenario rather than a plan, but it represents at the least a willingness to seize power. And in that way, this order of clerics reveals itself to be startlingly similar to its enemy, the Sith lord Chancellor Palpatine. That they speak of sacrifice, goodness, democracy, and piety actually makes them more insidious; Palpatine’s motives are at least transparent.

And in crucial ways, Palpatine makes more sense than the Jedis as he’s wooing Anakin. It is Palpatine who says, “Good is a point of view,” trying to undermine the Jedi Council’s warnings about the Dark Side. Obi-Wan, in six words, manages to endorse that statement while also blatantly contradicting it: “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

That line is not a mere slip. Throughout the Star Wars series, the Jedis have never been able to claim a coherent philosophy. Obi-Wan warns Luke about the Dark Side from a place of moral certainty, yet he clearly promoted a more relativist perspective in trying to cover his own ass on the whole “Darth Vader ... betrayed and murdered your father” bit: “Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

The Jedis are also blind to their role in driving Anakin to Palpatine; if they had not distrusted him and pushed him away, he wouldn’t have had reason to listen to the chancellor’s counsel. Even if one allows that the Jedi Council is entitled to make errors in judgment, neither Obi-Wan nor Yoda in the original trilogy takes any responsibility for how their actions helped create Darth Vader. And, in the end, those two bastions of wisdom were dead wrong about whether Darth Vader could be brought back from the Dark Side.

Most damningly, Obi-Wan and Yoda abandon their cause quicker than Monty Python’s cowardly Sir Robin. In response to a large number of Jedis being killed in Revenge of the Sith, they go into hiding. These are heroes? This is righteousness?

Lucas gets the concept that the Star Wars universe is shaded, I think. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the creator-writer/director gives voice to a fascinating subtext of the original trilogy: Darth Vader is

“so overwhelming in that first film, but you get to the point where you say, ‘Wait a minute. If he’s so powerful, why doesn’t he run the universe?’ He even gets pushed around by the governors! They know the emperor is the final word, so what happens is the same thing that happens in any corporation: Everybody worries about the top man; they don’t worry about his goon. ... So it’s even more tragic, because he’s not even an all-powerful bad guy; he’s kind of a flunky.”
What Lucas is getting at here is that Star Wars has a certain realism to it that might not be apparent to those of us who grew up with it. Beyond the straightforward story, there is a socio-political context that transcends and to an extent undercuts the movies’ moral precepts.

The new trilogy provides that background explicitly — so much so that Elvis Mitchell famously called The Phantom Menace “an intergalactic version of C-SPAN.”

This speaks to the core problem: George Lucas wants to add moral and political ambiguity to the series but lacks the balls and skills to do the job. The prequels are at once simplistic and overcrowded, juvenile and dense, to the degree that it’s virtually impossible to generate any narrative or emotional momentum. Revenge of the Sith, like The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, is at best a solid first draft, a rich trove of raw material begging to be shaped and refined (and trimmed) by better writers and directors.

Even more problematic, in tone, storytelling style, and production design Lucas treats the second trilogy again as a simple struggle between good and evil. In his facile telling, makeup, dress, disfigurement, and the color of a character’s light saber provide ample visual cues about for whom the audience should root; one’s moral bearing seems inseparable from one’s appearance. Yet if Darth Vader can have a dying-gasp conversion, it can’t be that simple, can it?

The color-coding worked in the original trilogy, which essentially stripped the politics out of what was by nature a political conflict. By telling his stories from the rebel perspective, Lucas obviously tells the audience where its sympathies should lie.

Yet there’s little actual evidence in the original trilogy that the Empire is morally worse than the rebels. Darth Vader dresses in black duds and breathes menace, and he’s a student of the Dark Side of the Force, but aside from the links the audience makes between dark and evil, how do we know that the Empire is a bad thing?

Yes, the Empire destroys planets and kills innocent people, but this is a military conflict, and in war combatants are rarely entitled to the ethical high ground; their motivations might or might not be pure, but killing tends to strip us of any moral authority. Imperialism is not by its nature evil, although it’s rarely used as a force for good. And military rebellion, while often spurred by altruism, embraces dubiously violent means. Remember that the rebels cause their share of carnage, blowing up plenty of innocents on the two Death Stars. And keep in mind that those massive killing machines were, first and foremost, military installations — the nuclear weapons of their day, meant as insurance policies against attack.

Lucas never brings this reservoir of uncertainty to the surface. His filmmaking style and skills don’t lend themselves to nuance, and he continues to treat his movies as platforms for selling shit instead of telling actual stories.

Of course, you can’t tell that to King George. As he said when the original trilogy (modified, of course) was released on DVD: “They all have very strong ideas about what should happen, and they think it should be their way. Which is fine, except I’m making the movies, so I should have it my way.”

Like the Jedi Council, Lucas is always certain he’s doing the right thing, and those who oppose him are barely entitled to their opinions. That makes him neither good nor evil — just human.

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