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Return of the Jedi.

Well, that was a happy surprise. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is by no means a perfect film. But, the reviews are right — this one’s miles above the other two prequels, and definitely can be considered in the same breath as Jedi. Sure, there’s a bad movie occasionally lingering in the shadows like a Sith, but for the most part this entry manages to capture some of that ole Star Wars feel, particularly in the opening rescue attempt and final hour. (And, unlike Menace and Clones, this one actually improves on a second viewing.)

So, what’s good? Well, while Ian McDiarmid gets in some choice scenery-chewing (particlarly once he goes Jedi) and Ewan McGregor steals the show with his canniest Alec Guinness impression yet, Hayden Christiansen is actually surprisingly decent this time around. The (mercifully brief) love scenes between he and a barely-used Natalie Portman are still stilted and sluggish, sure, but otherwise Christiansen acquits himself much better (It turns out the whiny-teenager schtick of Clones may have indeed been an acting choice.)

Whatsmore, barring a few hiccups here and there (Yoda really shouldn’t be used as Basil Exposition — It makes his syntax sound even more ridiculous), a lot of the “let’s take a meeting” scenes that so marred the first two prequels have a real dynamism to ’em in Sith. In fact, dare I say it, I actually found the court intrigue somewhat interesting this time — With Anakin caught between the machinations of Chancellor Palpatine and the distrust of the increasingly intransigent Jedi Order, there’re no tears shed over the taxation of trade routes or somesuch, and hardly a Jar Jar sighting to be had.

Our old embarrassment Mistah Binks may be sidelined this go around (as are a lot of the other random, useless characters of the first two prequels: I’m looking at you, Captain Typho), but Sith takes pleasure in harking back to old friends from the OT, among them an extended cameo by Chewbacca, a brief shot of Wayne “Scorpius” Pygram as Grand Moff Tarkin, and several scenes set in the Tantive IV. I was worried these types of nods would seem blatant and graceless, but for the most part they were handed quite well, and, indeed, turned out to be definite fanboy crowd-pleasers.

Yep, there’s a lot to like here…the opening shot, General Grievous, the Coruscant opera, all the amazing design flourishes by the ILM guys. In fact, even stuff that has no business working, like Ewan riding that goofy lizard all over Utapau, somehow ended up being kinda Tauntaun-like and un-prequel-ish.

But…that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. I’ve already mentioned the love scenes, and they’re pretty egregious. And at times, frankly, the film still just goes slack. Anakin and Obi-Wan’s final conversation before the Big Duel (the one that’s being quoted for its obvious Dubya references) should be a climactic moment in the saga, but it ends up seeming kinda stilted and poorly written. (“My allegiance is to the republic, and democracy…and, and cheese!”) Similarly the mano-a-mano between Yoda and the Emperor should seem one for the ages. But it’s never quite clear exactly why Yoda chooses to pull a Bishop-from-Aliens at the end, and lines like “Not if anything to say about it I have” just stop the film dead.

And, as a fanboy aside: While there are plenty of amazing and well-realized new worlds in Episode III, they all seem like they’re 30 seconds away from each other, with people popping back and forth between Coruscant and the Outer Rim in mid-sentence. What the heck happened to technology in the intervening two decades between III and IV? For some reason, Artoo loses tons of functionality, the Death Star takes 20 years to build, and the Millennium Falcon spends long stretches of time traveling in hyperspace, when back in the day Jedi apparently just snapped their fingers to get from place to place?

Also, why would Padme get kicked out of the Senate just for having a baby? And, for that matter, why is prenatal care so godawful in the Republic? Even notwithstanding the surprise-twins thing, that birthing robot with the scoop-hands looked like a torture droid.

But, obviously, these are nit-picks, and the fact that I’m picking nits rather than huge tumescent tumors from Sith is a mark of how much better this outing is than Clones. Ok, the end of the film drags just a bit, and the Obi-Wan/Anakin duel isn’t quite as viscerally exciting as the Maul melee of Menace, but for the most part I sat through Sith — both times! — with a big fanboy grin on my face. He definitely whiffed twice, but on his third swing, Lucas at least hit a triple here…it’s just too bad he didn’t recapture his mojo earlier. To paraphrase Palpatine, “Old fool. Only now, at the end, do you understand…

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