Never one to divide “high” art from “low,” Lucas draws from every available well of visual representation to craft this uniquely digital genre entertainment, a film that is broadly drawn in its emotional strokes but rigorous in its cinematic grammar.
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Over a decade after its release, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) still stands out as George Lucas’s summative and most masterful artistic statement. I use the word “summative” deliberately, because Sith incorporates a broad cinematic heritage, and also draws from Lucas’s own interests in narrative/illustrative art, architecture, world religion and mythology, anthropology, philosophy, pedagogy, and even race-car driving. In finding a tonally and visually radical common ground for these fixations, the film also addresses and subverts the director’s own oeuvre; and, as has always been the case with Star Wars, Sith contends with the poles of past and future, searching for (and sometimes grappling with) the space between. Of course, the Star Wars saga has always been anachronistic, employing science fiction iconography while also pulling famously from Joseph Campbell’s theory of monomythic commonalities in world narratives; the original film, released in 1977, also acted as a gateway to a commercial future, opening the floodgates (along with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws ) for a new kind of American blockbuster cinema. However, while Lucas and Spielberg offered auteurist statements on genre that were also fortunate enough to generate mass appeal, the majority of big-budget fare has since become studio-incubated and sanctioned by market control groups, resulting in films that are often devoid of passion for cinematic language. Ironically and sadly enough, this can certainly be said of J. J. Abrams’s insipid The Force Awakens (2015), a reactionary attempt to conserve a falsely utopic view of the saga’s origins.
To be sure, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) offers an optimistic worldview that adheres to the binaries of Manichean morality; this arguably simplistic sensibility informs the entirety of the original trilogy, which was rounded out by Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Richard Marquand’s Return of the Jedi (1983). The hopeful endpoint of Jedi surely informs viewer reaction to the tonal inversion of Lucas’s prequels – indeed, the six-part saga functions largely on the basis of a complicated symmetry between father (Anakin Skywalker) and son (Luke). While the three original films offer a reconfiguration of the archetypal hero’s journey, the prequels pose denser moral questions, greater radicalization of cinematic language, and more cohesive tonality thanks to Lucas’s sustained directorial control.
Undoubtedly, the prequels’ idiosyncratic experimentation remains divisive. This might be due in part to the fact that the newer films’ unstitching of polarized belief systems is disturbing and unusual in the context of mainstream genre entertainment. Anakin Skywalker appears first as a cherubic child in The Phantom Menace (1999), mostly subservient to chance and guided by forces of a seemingly divine nature. With Attack of the Clones (2002), Lucas illustrates the importance of Anakin’s autonomy while still placing emphasis on his adolescent naïveté. In Clones the issue of “responsibility” remains ambiguous, not least in the film’s extended homage to John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). Much like Ethan Edwards, the John Wayne protagonist in Ford’s classic film, Anakin also retributively hunts down a tribe that has kidnapped a woman he loves (in line with Lucas’s inverse obsessions, the niece in The Searchers becomes the mother in Attack of the Clones). Also much like Ethan, Anakin reduces his mother’s captors to inhuman savages, describing them as “animals” after he brutally slaughters them in a vengeful rage. Lucas recognizes the presence of Ford’s classic film (whether consciously or unconsciously), and especially the ways in which some of its mythic hero’s traits deserve scrutinizing in a more abstracted and contemporary context. Of course, unlike Wayne’s Ethan, who at the end of The Searchers disappears into the desert before a shutting door, Anakin is not closed off and forgotten. Lucas does not even content himself with mere questions of ethical choice (although such questions haunt Revenge of the Sith with a powerful insistence); instead, the director turns his attention to the bureaucratic and systematic processes that lend themselves to the creation of a destructive man.
Herein lie many of the qualities that inscribe Sith with a summative quality: the Star Wars saga has always concerned itself with pedagogy and parenthood, and those roles reveal profound implications in Sith. When it comes to the possibility of being “knighted” as a Jedi Master, Anakin’s fate is left ultimately to the cold judgment of the Jedi Council, which leaves him feeling excluded and ostracized; however, Lucas makes the optimistic point of depicting Yoda as a Socratic alternative to the disciplinarian Mace Windu. Even within the sanctified Council, there are authoritative checks and balances and sometimes opposing viewpoints; it is worth noting that the mentor-pupil relationship finds new potential in episodes IV-VI, with Yoda going on to train Anakin’s son with a tone of affirmation and openness. Actor Hayden Christensen navigates the difficult role of Anakin; to be sure, his line delivery often tunes into the 1930s theatricality of Lucas’s aesthetic. However, his physicality often recalls the American method actors of the 1950s – watching Christensen’s outbursts, I cannot help but be reminded of the broadly emotive angst of James Dean, who also played adolescent pain to great effect in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel without a Cause (1955). It is not Dean’s presence that hovers most clearly, though, but rather Montgomery Clift’s role in A Place in the Sun (1951). Like Clift’s George Eastman, Anakin is a young man presented with choices beyond anything that his oppressive upbringing have ever allowed him to imagine; also like Eastman, Anakin succumbs to the possibilities afforded by power and respect, ultimately making a series of decisions that damn him. Christensen echoes Clift in his claustrophobic embodiment, never shedding the look of a young man who desperately misses his mother.
Taking note of these filmic reference points, I recall again the notion of Revenge of the Sith as Lucas’s most summative work. As with the previous entries, the director draws largely from silent and early sound cinema (especially Buster Keaton, Alexander Dovzhenko, and Sergei Eisenstein) to bolster a work that is deeply imagistic, almost unconsciously associative: morality is codified through colour (especially in the case of lightsabers), and the tension between “naturalism”/“the organic” and “the industrial” reaches a saga-long apex – as the film’s dramaturgical center of gravity, Anakin represents this latter struggle in his literally physical merging of flesh and machine. In its visual emphasis, Sith often leans closer to the works of Stan Brakhage and Mary Ellen Bute than to those of Michael Curtiz or Fred M. Wilcox. The imprint of Akira Kurosawa also lingers here, as in all six of the Star Wars films, and also lingering is the imprint of Lucas’s New Hollywood friends (there are many similarities between Anakin’s psychology and that of Travis Bickle in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver ; the montage of the “Order 66” Jedi genocide openly evokes the baptism/murder scene in Coppola’s The Godfather ; and the siege on the beaches of Kashyyyk brings to mind the visceral Normandy opening of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan ). Not to mention, Lucas evokes the experimental tone poetry of his own earlier works (watching the swashbuckling aerial introduction, it is difficult to ignore the auteur’s career-long obsession with textural detail, especially with regard to light glinting off mechanical bodies, as we saw in Herbie , THX 1138 , and American Graffiti , or the kind of pure engagement with momentum that characterized 1:42.08 ).
The film’s deeply visual emphasis also plays out in linear and direct relation to the previous prequels: The Phantom Menace is characterized mostly by the warm tones of Tatooine and Naboo, with the majority of scenes occurring in bright sunlight; Attack of the Clones balances evening and late daytime scenes, its palette dominated by the steely grays and blues of Coruscant and Kamino to underline the moral relativity of its central character; finally, Revenge of the Sith plays out predominantly at dusk and at nighttime, frequently situating its characters in political chambers designed according to the film’s “evil” tones of black and red. So too does the style of composition and movement bolster the film’s tonality: even in the midst of their narrative complexities, Menace and Clones are punctuated frequently with rousing set pieces, lending the films an exciting forward momentum. Contrarily, Revenge of the Sith submerges itself in the discomforting particulars of faltering political systems and fatal misunderstandings. The aforementioned opening provides the film’s only sequence of pure “escape,” and even that sequence takes a moment to fester in Anakin’s decaying sense of morality. Much of the film devotes itself to conversations with impossibly high stakes, dialogue delivered in a kind of blunt efficiency that recalls silent cinema; the words are functional, serving only to supplant the audiovisual power on display. When characters speak, they speak broadly and dramatically, leaving no room for confusion: “You’re breaking my heart”; “from my point of view, the Jedi are evil.” The performances also frequently hearken back to older styles: when Palpatine transforms into the treacherous Emperor we remember from Jedi, actor Ian McDiarmid exudes the expressive excess of kabuki theatre, a style lent famous cinematic context by Akira Kurosawa in Throne of Blood (1958) and Ran (1985).
Given the newly expansive potential afforded by digital technology, Lucas is no longer limited to simple filmic references. In Revenge of the Sith, he boldly visualizes his interests in classical mythology and literature; to be sure, the prequels recall the tragedies of Shakespeare, perhaps most evidently in Palpatine’s similarities to Othello’s Iago. However, Lucas digs deeper and further into the past when he depicts Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi duelling across the volcanic vistas of Mustafar. When discussing this scene, it is crucial to acknowledge Camille Paglia’s wonderful and laudatory piece in Glittering Images. Indeed, it is in this scene that the film’s awe-striking and unprecedented anachronism totally takes over: painting his images digitally, Lucas taps into our knowledge of Dante, of the legend of Faust, the Christian Hell and the Greek Hades, of the metaphoric burning of Icarus’s wings in the form of Anakin’s smoldering body. Appropriately, John Williams’s score moves further from Korngold-echoing whimsy with each successive prequel, and in Sith it acquires operatic overtones. Never one to divide “high” art from “low,” Lucas draws from every available well of visual representation to craft this uniquely digital genre entertainment, a film that is broadly drawn in its emotional strokes but rigorous in its cinematic grammar. The starkly outlined divisions established by the five preceding films break down in the Mustafar sequence, emphasized by the combatants’ matching lightsabers. It is almost as if we are watching the mythic Star Wars world burning down, an epic downfall of elemental gestures. We can no longer perceive this man, Anakin Skywalker, as an enigmatic monster in a robotic suit; not now that we have seen him weeping with rage at the network of choices and obstacles that led him to hell. If only every myth were graced with such far-ranging moral gradients; Anakin chooses evil, because it seems to him like the only right choice at the time. Now that is tragedy.