At the risk of trading-in my science fiction film-going card, I present my opening gambit: Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a minor achievement in mimicry, while Revenge of the Sith is a major achievement in failure, or rather, a major achievement in failing to achieve a personal vision. Fans who despise the film tend to confine the series to a contrived standard of quality, one rooted in scene-to-scene legibility, in flows of character logic, in the film not biting off more than it can chew for fear of alienating viewers who cannot follow the missteps and mistakes of a film that seems to be actively rewriting itself before their eyes. In this framework, The Force Awakens is a definitive but ultimately banal success at what it sets out to do, a clean, precise, efficient blockbuster machine. But the costs are also a subservience to the staggering weight of the franchise and an acceptance of the solidity of obligatory satisfaction, of adherence to expectation. The film’s complementary successes ring out like injunctions to respectability, refusals to violate or reconsider or explode the mandatory vision of a franchise in favor of your personal vision for that franchise.
Episode III’s failure list is a mile long, but it does not, unlike Abrams’ film, stagnate with the failure of nerve, verve, or desire. It is a defiantly anti-timid film, a work that hums with the exotic need to contain varying valences and expose wriggle room within Lucas’ often static series and the calcified aura of blockbusters which have followed in its path. Constantly on the verge of collapse, it indulges the contrary, contrives the improbable, and rumbles head-first into a welter of disturbances rather than, like most blockbusters, removing all the kinks in favor of undisturbed, pacific beauty. While Abrams’ film and the Disney Star Wars films in general often seen like a retreat, a shoring up of certainty, the safety of a return to primary origins, Episode III is an extremely rocky road.
Which, and owing to Lucas’ propensity for curiosity that surpasses his ability, means that Revenge of the Sith wades into murky waters and drowns. Lucas’ final film actively entertains alternate selves, seeking out and getting caught up in the chaos of incertitude. It boasts a wonderful locomotion of ideas as well as spaces, temporal realms, and possibilities, all circling centrifugally rather than honing in on a laser-point of comparatively timid perfection like Force Awakens. But Revenge does not always – cannot always – extricate a watchable film out of its mélange of possibilities, even if its heedless charisma unbounded by formal norms is always appreciable and usually honorable. The central narrative, for instance, almost isn’t, especially because Lucas decided rather unambiguously to backload all of the meaningful material in this prequel trilogy – nearly the entirety of Anakin’s actual arc from light to the precipice of dark to outright evil. Lucas’ screenplay, if not his visuals, is seldom able to corral the surfeit of dramatic potentiality here into submission. But this is both blessing and curse: Revenge of the Sith is both emboldened by and hindered via the consequential pressure of dramatic expectation. The need to fulfill a predestined arc, to fit a type, looms over the entire film, both trying both to lock it into place – trivializing it as a mere A-to-B-to-C story – and to unlatch the film to explore its inner non-alignment to consequence-free blockbuster norms, to emphasize consequences of the characters’ minds rather than merely their stories.
Attack of the Clones mostly relegates one entirely autonomous scene totally unmoored from its filmic vessel to exploring Anakin’s dark-side – thereby rendering Anakin a sullen, mopey teenager in the process. Comparatively, Revenge of the Sith is loaded with, freed for, and impeded by its propensity for dramatic heavy lifting. But at least the mythopoetic stakes of this particular film – one gifted boy is tempted by and gives in to evil – is an astonishingly more comfortable fit for Lucas’ general visual battle plan and his phalanx of painterly compositions than the po-faced attempt at ground-level social issues and politicking in the former two films. Yes, Hayden Christensen is as neutralized as ever and Lucas’ dialogue is criminally void of human impact throughout. But the jerky screenplay’s eccentric, spastic confusion is at least finally married to a thematic core of adolescent uncertainty, of internal emotions waging tempestuously and tearing the stability of one’s self, both Anakin’s and the film’s, apart at the seams. Likewise, the howlingly non-real dialogue is at least mobilized as part of – not usually a worthwhile part of, but at least akin to – a tempest of a film that draws its spirit from nothing rational or reasonable in the lived world but from the spellbinding chaos and creation of a push-pull between dreams and nightmares.
The opening battle, to wit, is dementedly good, gifted with Lucas’ unnatural ferocity for vectors of light, color, speed, and motion intersecting in and interacting with planes of space and time in wholly unexpected, truly evocative formations. The sequence is sometimes brutally un-followable. But like nowhere else in Star Wars, this introductory spasm invokes a sensibility of a torrid universe disrupting our desire to enjoy it or even Lucas’ to depict it. The unsystematic, careless multitudes on display are truly inspired in an era where most blockbusters feel sanded-down and timidly acquiescent to only attempting what they may easily sustain. And from there, Lucas casts stones every which way. But while Phantom and Attack are primarily “confusing” because they are adherent to narratives which they cannot properly articulate despite their rapid efforts to do so, Revenge throws its lot into realms beyond narrative and seems gleefully indifferent to its basic outline. The film’s various subplots and poetic stanzas of pure imagery do not structure this madness or even condition it so much as work to catch up to it, positioning Revenge against the norm in blockbuster cinema where any eccentricities must be muffled by corporate similitude and franchise homogeneity, where any strangeness should be packaged and muted.
Compare all this to the archly-competent and totally fine exhibit of corporate fealty that is The Force Awakens, cramped by its narrative, exorcised of any personal demons beyond those which the Star Wars template can allow. In this context, I cannot abide by or feel at home in the bizarro world where people actually criticize Revenge for General Grievous’ irrational design and the leaps in logic behind the lava planet at the end, as though filtering Star Wars through questions of real-world logic is A. useful at all B. meaningful in any way or C. anything other than a cartoonishly obvious bullet point on the laundry list of complaints that fans prescribe to the film almost sight unseen. The fact remains, relative to the entirety of Force Awakens, placidly decent though it may be, there exists more personality in the three minute Order 66 montage. Or the gruelingly beautiful, stylistically arrogant climax that cross-cuts between the Yoda vs Sidious battle, in the circular statehouse-parody room where the Galactic Senate meets, and Obi-Wan fighting Anakin amidst the tectonic fracas of a seemingly-imploding lava planet. Or any number of other sequences in the film for that matter.
This is a reactionary review. It is not a reclamation of Revenge as a masterpiece of cinema but a proclamation of frequently-missed potentiality, a critique of viewers who focus on the aspects of cinema that Revenge is so clearly disinterested in. The dialogue, mind you, is usually awful, and even the best bits wheeze to glide over the spiky bed of writing resting underneath them. Even the wonderful climax has to battle the infamous exchange of Obi-Wan’s “Anakin, Chancellor Palpatine is Evil” running right smack-dab into Anakin’s bold retort “From My Point of View, The Jedi Are Evil”. I do not contend that Revenge is usually or ever a great film. But it is more often than not a conduit to great, pure cinema.
And on those grounds, what a way it is to conclude Lucas’ part in the franchise. The original Star Wars begins with a proxy for Lucas: Luke, a young man afraid of living out the rest of his life fixing cars, waiting around for death. Lucas himself was a man obsessed with teenage car culture and the rebel cinema of his youth in the ‘50s, as well as the ecstatic possibility of constant propulsion to an uncertain future that animated him so heedlessly in his younger days. In this context, Revenge is the ultimate, and maybe most exciting, conclusion to that James-Dean-death-drive-desire to locate and rush into any form of newness it can (potentially) harness, even if it kills it and forces it to totally implode from impact, to collapse in a reverie of failure. Before Disney, Episode III was to be a dying franchise’s final breath, but it is played at the tempo of a youthful rogue’s peculiar need to rush into oblivion. Most Star Wars films these days obviously wish to be admitted to the canon. But Revenge, operating often loopily and without any safety net, usually seems like its primary desire is excommunication.