I was pleased with my death. I asked him not to kill me in my sleep.
— Samuel L. Jackson, New York Times (16 May 2005)
“This is how liberty dies, to thunderous applause,” observes Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman). This as her fellow lawmakers grant Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) all kinds of emergency wartime powers, in a well-meaning effort to stave off the Sith, currently threatening planets hither and yon. Padmé’s assessment is generally yours, of course, as you have seen the behind-the-scenes maneuvers leading to this vote, wherein Palpatine’s real identity is revealed, and the senate fall obliviously in line against the nobly inclined but not-so-sharp Jedi security force. As the Senate does precisely the wrong thing and the Empire is formed, Padmé can only look on, sad, wise, and large — she’s pregnant with twins by her secret Jedi boy husband Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen).
Padmé’s melancholy resonates throughout Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith. Focused on death and loss, this middle installment of the series (and last to be made, at least according to George Lucas this week) grants only limited vision to its struggling heroes and eventual villain (that is, Anakin transformed into Darth Vader). Padmé can’t know, of course, that her imminent death in childbirth gives rise to Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side, or that his future will involve trying to kill those very precious twins, to be named Luke and Leia.
Not even Anakin can know all of this. But you can. Which means that you comprehend that Anakin’s decisions lead to tragedy, that his distrust of his longtime mentor and friend Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) is wrong, that his love for Padmé, well-intentioned as it may be, is hopelessly childish, and that his desire for power — healing, saving, godlike power, with some vengeance included — is disastrous. Anakin’s end is the series’ end. The prequels are done, and so the thunderous applause can begin in earnest.
This is not to say that the Star Wars franchise is in itself marking the death of “liberty.” To the contrary, sort of, George Lucas’ decades-long marketing extravaganza stands as a mighty emblem of freedom and self-expression, individual desire elevated to icon. This even as the films’ essential narrative espouses devotion to democracy, they also tell the story of its cycles, its repeated battles with the Dark Side, most famously embodied by Darth (“Luke, I am your father”) Vader, whose shift from light to dark is the focus of this final installment.
As a film, Sith is less embarrassing than Phantom Menace (1999) and less tedious than Attack of the Clones (2002). It begins with a rousing, gorgeously executed space battle scene, showing off all that technical brilliance ILM was destined to design: Anakin (a.k.a. the Chosen One) and Obi-Wan, attended by R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), zip around in fleet cruisers, attacked by buzz droids and reveling in their piloting and robot-killing skills (“This is where the fun begins,” asserts Anakin as the shooting starts).
Though Anakin sees the “fun,” the Jedi are fighters with a philosophy, after all. Sworn to celibacy, like monks, they also go forth into martial-artsish-zennish-zwoop-zwoop battles in order to maintain galactic order. An order they ordain, and an order that begins to trouble Anakin, once he envisions another. They first appear in Sith mid-mission, namely, the descent to the planet Coruscant, where they will take down mean, skeletally droidy General Grievous and odious Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), and take Palpatine prisoner. Anakin perceives his murder of Dooku (urged by Palpatine) a necessary action, and both he and Obi-wan perceive their mission accomplished. But the end of Dooku only leads to the next step in the Star Wars mythology, the rise of the next, extra-powerful Sith Lord, Darth Sidious.
“I sense a trap,” intones occasionally empathic and always charismatic Obi-Wan. Indeed. What Obi-wan doesn’t sense is that their success on Coruscant sets in motion Anakin’s descent, or as the also empathic Dooku puts it, “I sense great fear in you, Skywalker.” This film means to demonstrate why and how the good Anakin (who, you will remember, saw his mother abused as a child, learning early on the effects of power, for collective and individual ends) might be tempted by the Dark Side. Frustrated by his perception that he is slighted by the Jedi masters — among them. Obi-wan, Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), and the now fully CGI-realized Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) — Anakin seeks confirmation of his brilliance and rightness elsewhere.
The most touching images of this search involve Padmé, in Sith mostly confined to the gorgeous apartment she shares with her husband, when he’s not off saving the universe. Her fears for him palpable and tenderly expressed (as a Senator and lover, she’s not weighed down by the royal regalia she suffered as Queen), but his nightmares of her death in childbirth and conversations with Palpatine lead him to refashion his love for her into another sort of mission. As much as he imagines his desires to be selfless — he wants to save his beloved, after all, the film also submits that Anakin’s aspirations are utterly individualistic, abandoning the greater good for personal gain.
Anakin’s struggle takes up the film’s emotional space. And while it replicates the episodic structure of the previous movies, its finale status grants Sith‘s brief exposition/conversation scenes some sense of trajectory (though, as McGregor and other actors have noted repeatedly, green screen acting, in dollops of minutes and sometimes even seconds, are hardly conducive to performance delicacy or depth). And so the movie careens between glowering pronouncements and antic action (Windu passing judgments, Obi-wan riding a giant lizard), until at last it climaxes. And it does this several times, milking its “last-ness” for all it’s worth: the long-awaited confrontation between Obi-wan and Anakin, on the hellishly lava-laden planet Mustafar (digitized over images of Mount Etna erupting); Yoda flipping and slashing all over an elaborate CGI-ed set, this time with the slightly less convincing figure of Darth Sidius.
For all its lavish effects, Sith‘s primary purpose is to showcase Anakin’s dilemma. When advised by Obi-Wan that “Only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes,” the angry, gifted, and ambitious Anakin asserts that such binary thinking is precisely his new credo: “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy.” That this thinking leads directly to Anakin’s systematic slaughter of Jedi knights (including children, a scene the film implies, ominously) only underlines the costs of ideology and devotion: looking for both a cause and a route to redemption, Anakin only finds war.
While Lucas long ago claimed his story was partly inspired by the U.S. fall into the Vietnam war and after, Sith brings forward the political critique to a moment that invites comparison. Lucas’ attempted apolitical veneer — telling folks at Cannes, “The U.S. is in danger of losing its democratic ideals” — only underlines the point: wars are political, even in movies. That these ideals have from their inceptions been compromised (Native massacres, slavery, internment camps) rarely dissuades such nationally-inclined optimism. But it’s worth thinking through the cycles presented in Star Wars, especially as they can seem repetitive and awkward, glorious and arrogant.
Perhaps what’s most distressing is that the long anticipated emergence of Darth Vader is so mundane. He is a C student, after all. Trampling over hopes embodied by Padmé, Obi-Wan, the memory of his dead mother’s suffering (the film trots out this pop-psychological rationale, very briefly), and especially those little Jedi kids, Anakin means well. And that’s the problem. Built on a surgery table, he’s gigantic and tragic, but inside, he’s a kid, mad that he can’t get his way, striking out at perceived enemies, unable to imagine reconciliation.