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Crouching Yoda, Hidden Sith Lord

The latest "Star Wars" episode revels in the dark side.

The Wookiees do, however, offer moments of solace in what has turned into an extended headache of a video-game trailer. These large creatures look like basketball players in furry suits and therefore look somewhat believable. Most of the other creatures look like they were drawn by a guy at a computer with too many Sprite cans around his desk. "Revenge," even more than the two preceding episodes, is tricked out from nose to fin with the same kind of CGI wizardry. But CGI is not special effects. It's just fancy animation, and looks like it. It distances us from the action, whereas in "The Empire Strikes Back" we could gaze at a primitive soundstage and see only the frozen tunnels of Hoth or the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon.

Which brings us to the actual story. If only it were still all about good versus evil. Until the last quarter of "Revenge" nothing in this movie makes any sense, even on its own terms. Remember in Episode 1, when Natalie Portman played a woman named Queen Padmé Amidala? Now she's just Padmé, secretly living in connubial bliss with Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) in some kind of swanky penthouse in the stratosphere. Wouldn't somebody miss her? There's no point in going on like this about every curious plot development. But it's particularly egregious when things are forgotten, like the entire Clone Wars episode. In "Revenge," there are no clones, and the war must have been neatly cleaned up between movies.

But such a beloved franchise need not concern itself with something so piddling as continuity. On to the quick career move of Anakin, from spindly Jedi Chosen One to 7-foot-tall throat-crushing Darth Vader. He comes from a long line of Darths, including Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid), Darth Grievous and Darth Plagueus (I'm not making these up). Thankfully, Lucas cut out the crazy rap scene with Grievous' brother, Darth Ludacris. If it seems unfair to poke fun at a movie intended for children, let it be said that most of the children who were standing in line on the opening weekend looked about 30. "Revenge" is, as promised, intended for them, notably darker in content than the first two. A little too dark, perhaps, with Anakin shown winding up to kill pre-adolescent Jedi. During and after these scenes, "Revenge" gains a little clarity, as the film begins to pull together the strands that lead to those original films of decades ago.

Yet even in the heat of lightsaber juggling, there are moments when you can both love Lucas and wish he'd never picked up a camera. In the most prominent of such scenes, the lines are all too familiar: Sith lord: "You are either with me or against me!" Responds the Jedi: "Only a Sith deals in absolutes!" This after an earlier question from Padmé, "What if the democracy we're fighting for no longer exists?" Uh-oh, you'll hear the audience catch on, someone just got busted.

Lucas' bold political statement is applaudable, but it is as weirdly out of place and just as clumsy as everything else in the movie. It is both the best and worst example of how this series long ago died as storytelling to be reborn as a grotesque moneymaking scheme. In that, it is an undoubted success story. One trip to the grocery store, stacked floor to ceiling with Obi-Wan-approved Frosted Flakes and C-3PO Cokes, says it all. This phenomenon can only be explained as the dark side of popular entertainment. (PG-13) *1/2 S

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