Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (UK - BD)
Chris looks at the final instalment of the Star Wars prequel trilogy on Blu-ray Disc
The now-familiar opening crawl explains that the Clone Wars have raged for three years. In a bold move the Separatist forces, led by the nefarious Count Dooku, have launched a daring raid on the Republic capital of Coruscant and succeeded in capturing the Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Senate, Palpatine. Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker are despatched to rescue the Chancellor, who is being held captive aboard the Separatist flagship by General Grievous, the deadly cyborg leader of the droid armies.
The Jedi succeed in infiltrating the flagship, only to encounter heavy resistance in the form of Confederacy battle droids. When they eventually fight their way to the imprisoned Chancellor they are confronted by Count Dooku himself, and engage in a second lightsaber duel with the Sith Lord. When Obi-Wan is knocked unconscious Anakin intensifies his attack and manages to disarm his opponent (literally). It is then that he takes his first steps towards the darkness, when he beheads the defenceless Count at the behest of Chancellor Palpatine.
After a triumphant return to Coruscant Anakin is reunited with the love of his life, Padmé Amidala, the senator for Naboo who Anakin married in a secret ceremony before the onset of the Clone Wars. It is then that he learns of her pregnancy, which in turn leads to prophetic dreams of her death during childbirth. Troubled by his visions Anakin at first turns to the wisdom of Yoda, before once again seeking the council of his friend and mentor, Chancellor Palpatine. When the Chancellor innocently recounts the tale of Darth Plagueis, a Sith Lord so powerful with the Force he could use it to sustain and create life, Anakin believes he has found a way to save his love from certain death.
With Obi-Wan and Yoda away on missions for the Republic Anakin falls increasingly under the influence of the Chancellor. When Palpatine reveals himself to be none other than the Sith Lord Darth Sidious Anakin is unable to strike him down, instead reporting the unsettling news to Jedi Master Mace Windu. When Windu attempts to arrest Sidious they become embroiled in a deadly lightsaber duel in which Mace seemingly emerges victorious, but as he prepares to deliver the killing blow he is attacked by Anakin, who sees Sidious as his only chance of saving Padmé. Having betrayed the Jedi, and with little choice left to him, Anakin pledges himself to the ways of the Sith and is reborn as Darth Vader.
Without giving any further plot details away it’s safe to say that this is the turning point in the film; when Palpatine effectively offers Anakin the one thing the Jedi cannot: the ability to save his wife from certain death. Anakin’s love for Padmé is the catalyst for his betrayal of his Jedi principals and his defection to the dark side of the Force, and his ultimate downfall. How’s that for irony?
Now I’m a massive fan of the original Star Wars trilogy - a fact that should be evident to anyone who’s read my reviews or articles on this site - but after the relative disappointments of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, Sith had a lot to do in order to restore my faith in the prequel series. At first I resisted the hype machine surrounding the movie, but as the months passed and the first images appeared I have to admit to becoming pretty excited. For me, George Lucas’ promise of a ‘darker’ film meant one that took a more adult approach to the material; one without ‘comedy’ droids and haphazard Gungans. On opening night (well, 12:35am to be precise) I sat down with around three hundred other people - some of them waving lightsabers around in an ill-advised manner - to experience the culmination of almost thirty years of work.
First impressions were good. I’ll admit that the opening, dizzying shot of the Jedi starfighters twisting through the orbital battle above Coruscant literally sent a shiver down my spine (due in no small part to John Williams’ music). I actually felt a real sense of immediacy, almost as if I were in the cockpit with Anakin or Obi-Wan. I’ve always been far more forgiving of CGI when used for inorganic creations than for living creatures, so the overabundance of digital effects used in the battle didn’t really faze me. Then it happened - the vulture droids appeared, complete with ‘cute’ voices. Worse was to come in the next few minutes, when the armies of battle droids appeared and began speaking in voices so annoying as to make ‘Roger roger’ seem positively soothing by comparison. My heart sank as R2-D2 was made to act out a particularly cringe-worthy slapstick scene that almost, but not quite, rivalled C-3PO’s trip around the droid factory in Attack of the Clones.
Finally, when it appeared that we would be getting down to the plot, we were instead ‘treated’ to a throwaway scene in which Anakin cold-bloodedly murders the Sith Lord, Count Dooku. In the novel and audio book this is a pivotal scene in which Anakin is goaded by Dooku and encouraged by Palpatine, who plants the first seeds of darkness in the young Jedi’s mind. In the completed film the battle is over almost as quickly as it begins, with virtually zero time devoted to exploring Anakin’s state of mind. Presumably the five minutes of bad jokes and annoying robots preceding this moment necessitated the trimming of the actual encounter. I wanted to see Anakin’s fall from grace, not battle droids rolling around in oil yelling ‘ouch’!
After some rather embarrassing dialogue delivered in a ham-fisted fashion, we learn that Padmé is pregnant with Anakin’s child. This sets into motion the events that will shape the rest of the story. Once again Anakin begins to have prophetic dreams about the death of a loved one (this time Padmé, who ‘dies’ in child birth), and this is supposed to be the reason behind his eventual betrayal of the Jedi and allegiance to the Sith. Unfortunately the chemistry between Christensen and Portman is sadly lacking and I never once bought the relationship between the two, which is a bit of a problem considering that he goes on to plunge the whole galaxy into darkness because he’s so ‘in love’ with her.
Another huge problem is that Hayden Christensen is about as charismatic as a plank of wood, flatly delivering Lucas’ contrived dialogue and repeatedly overemphasising the wrong words or lines. His supposedly chilling speech as he announces his evil intentions to a horrified Obi-Wan on Mustafar wouldn’t be out of place in a school play. I don’t know if the blame rests squarely on his shoulders though, because he presumably gave a number of different readings for each take. Lucas and his editorial team would then have chosen the one they liked, and Christensen has previously spoken of his regret over the use of certain takes when he had delivered a better performance in others (such as his ‘I killed them all’ speech in Attack of the Clones).
Another regrettable side-effect of Lucas trying to cram so much into Sith is the criminal lack of screen time devoted to Natalie Portman. Now I know she received a lot of flack for her performances in the previous films, but movies such as Leon, Closer, Garden State , V for Vengeance and of course Black Swan prove that she is a talented and capable actress. In the previous movies she is a strong, independent leader, but here she is reduced to a relatively inconsequential character with very little to do beyond look pretty (which she does) and spout horrible lines of dialogue. I refer you to the exchange between Anakin in Padmé in which, when complimented on her beauty, she responds with ‘It’s only because I’m so in love with you.’ Please, someone pass the bucket. If the deleted subplot involving the formation of the Rebellion had remained Padmé’s character would have at least contributed something to this movie beyond getting knocked up and Force choked.
Speaking of trying to cram too much into the film, this is actually Revenge of the Sith’s biggest failing. The events portrayed in the film really needed to be stretched out over two movies, which would have allowed more screen time to be devoted to Anakin’s seduction. As it is our hero goes from being the saviour of the galaxy to the second most evil being in existence in about as much time as it takes Jabba the Hutt to eat one of those little frog things. Still, enough of the negatives; I could nit-pick all day but that would just be depressing. Instead, I’m going to break with tradition slightly and talk about the positive aspects of the film (of which there are actually quite a few).
Firstly, Ian McDiarmid is a joy. He is clearly relishing the dual roles of Chancellor Palpatine and Darth Sidious, especially during the latter stages of the film when he really gets to camp it up as the maniacal Sith Lord. He cackles his way through an exhilarating encounter with Yoda, in which he arguably has the upper hand in a performance that is straight from the school of over-the-top pantomime acting. However, it works very well in the context of this movie, even if he does pull some questionable ‘sex’ faces when using a lightsaber. Although McDiarmid steals the show Ewan McGregor is also on top form as the venerable Obi-Wan Kenobi. He is closer to Alec Guinness here than ever before, right down to the style of his hair, his beard and the twinkle in his eye.
As one might expect from a Star Wars movie the effects are pretty spectacular. The opening orbital battle looks astounding, as does pretty much everything that follows. By 2005 technology had finally evolved to the point where organic creatures looked fairly convincing (Obi-Wan’s lizard steed, Boga) and the digital doubles are all but seamless. General Grievous is an impressive, if underutilised digital creation, while the various lightsaber duels reach heights hitherto unseen in the saga (with the possible exception of the 'Duel of the Fates'). In fact, the lightsaber duel on Mustafar is probably the most visually impressive sequence in a film full of visual splendour, with its seamless combination of digital and live-action elements. Yes, you can say what you like about the story, acting and direction, but no one can deny that Revenge of the Sith is a good looking film. Watching it again on Blu-ray didn't really negate any of the criticism I had after the theatrical and DVD viewings, but there's still fun to be had here.
Revenge of the Sith was the second Star Wars movie to be shot digitally, with a more advanced version of the camera used for Attack of the Clones. As a result the film's 2.35:1 widescreen (1080/24p AVC) transfer is easily the best of the prequels. One of the problems with the previous film was that it looked very soft for something shot digitally, owing to the intential use of filtering in post-production. Sith hasn't been tampered with in the same way, so the image is largely razor-sharp and nicely detailed with a three-dimensionality that the other prequels lack. Because it was transferred from the digital files there are absolutely no film artefacts to be found anywhere, and even digital artefacts are not particularly bothersome (there is perhaps some posterisation, but that's about it). It's a completely blemish-free image.
The palette is wonderfully realised and far more vibrant than Attack of the Clones due to the absence of any revised grading. The more varied locations seen in the film provide ample opportunity for the transfer to show off gorgeous colour reproduction, be it sandy shores and lush green forests of Kashyyk, the bioluminescence of Felucia, or the fiery oranges of the volcanic Mustafar. Contrast is also spot on, and although some scenes bloom - namely those set aboard the Tantive IV - it's an intentional effect. Detailing is pretty great as well, although not up with the very best owing largely to the limitations of the original cinematographic process. Even so it's plenty easy to pick out intricate textures in the fabric of the elaborate costumes and so on. In all honesty there's really not much point in harping on about the quality of this transfer because it's far and away the best of the prequels, nay the entire saga. If I had to make one criticism it would be that it does look a little incongruous next to the other films because of its very obvious digital origins, but that's not really a fault per se. When it comes to visuals I've been fairly critical of the other Star Wars discs, but rest assured the Force is strong with this one.
Like the other prequels audio is provided by way of a DTS-HD Master Aduio 6.1 soundtrack. Revenge of the Sith has a lot to do in order to live up to the lofty standards set by its predecessors, but thankfully it doesn't disappoint. The opening sequence is one of the most exhilarating in the film, perhaps even the entire prequel trilogy, as thunderous bass announces the arrival of a gigantic Venator-class Star Destroyer even before the camera pans down to reveal the juggernaut itself. Moments later two eerily familiar-sounding Jedi starfighters zip overhead and skim the length of the cruiser, before barrel-rolling headlong into the maelstrom below. The Jedi twist and turn through the carnage before engaging in a dogfight with vulture droids, as all the while capital ships hammer each other with turbolasers - and that’s just the opening five minutes! Things don't really let up from there either, as the Jedi attempt to rescue the Chancellor from the clutches of General Grievous. There's an intense lightsaber battle with Darth Tyrannus, not to mention about a hundred battle droids, while the attempt to land a crippled starship provides plenty of sonic delights. Revenge of the Sith also features more large scale battles than any other Star Wars film, with skirmishes on Kashyyk, Utapau, and various other worlds all sounding great (particularly during the 'Order 66' sequence).
The track also has some subtler moments, with the introduction of more ominous music to accompany the Sith's rise to power, and ambient effects are handled very well. The Jedi vs Dooku duel takes place to strains of the raging space battle outside, while the Senate chamber on Coruscant comes alive with the voices of a thousand different species. Other memorable moments include a conversation between Anakin and Chancellor Palpatine at the opera house, during which the rippling applause of the crowd sits alongside the eerie hum of the music, and the sounds of a storm high above the streets of Coruscant towards the end is very atmospheric. One minor blemish on all of this is the dialogue, which sits a little lower in the mix than the first two prequels. I think it's probably a little harsh to call it indistinct, but I would have liked a little more presence.
After the relative disappointment of Attack of the Clones' score Sith delivers a stronger, more cohesive effort. Although Williams reuses cues from the other films it is more fitting this time around, and by incorporating more elements from the original trilogy he brings a sense of familiarity to the score. There are also some wonderful new creations, not least the rousing 'Battle of the Heroes', which accompanies the climactic showdown between the Jedi and the Sith. 'Battle of the Heroes' (and its offshoot 'Anakin vs. Obi-Wan) rivals 'Duel of the Fates' and 'Across the Stars' as one of the defining pieces of the prequel trilogy, but there are worthy cues aplenty here. All things considered this is another great sound mix.
As with The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones before it, Revenge of the Sith includes the original audio commentary from the DVD release. Again the commentary is quite technically focussed, but there is some discussion of narrative elements. The participants include George Lucas, Rick McCallum, Rob Coleman, John Knoll and Roger Guyett. Like the other original commentaries it makes for interesting, if not terribly exciting listening.
The second commentary is another patchwork affair that includes the likes of Trisha Biggar, Gavin Bocquet, Ben Burtt, Silas Carson, Hayden Christensen, Rob Coleman, Anthony Daniels, Nick Gillard, Roger Guyett, Sam Jackson, John Knoll, Christopher Lee, George Lucas, Ian McDiarmid, Ewan McGregor, Temuera Morrison, Natalie Portman and Jimmy Smitts. As with the other patchwork commentaries it's probably the more revealing of the two tracks.
Well that brings my reviews of the prequel trilogy to an end. While most definitely flawed, Revenge of the Sith is an entertaining popcorn flick and eminently viewable if approached with the right frame of mind. However, I’m still of the opinion that the prequel trilogy as a whole is one big missed opportunity; a prime example of ‘what could have been’. I honestly don’t believe that future generations will have the same regard for these films as mine has for the original trilogy. Perhaps that has as much to do with the way in which the world has changed as it does with the quality of the writing and direction, but the latter certainly plays a major part. For me, Attack of the Clones is still the most enjoyable episode of the three, but I understand that I’m probably in the minority there. Whatever the movie’s shortcomings, Lucasfilm has delivered the goods with the Blu-ray. It's easily the best looking of the prequel trilogy, and coupled with yet another high-quality soundtrack it's arguably the most impressive instalment of the saga.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable only for persons of 12 years and over
Release Date: 12th September 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Dolby Digital 5.1 Portuguese, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish, Audio Description Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Subtitles: Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish
Extras: Audio Commentaries
Easter Egg: No
Director: George Lucas
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Oz, Christopher Lee, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, James Earl Jones
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy and Sci-Fi
Length: 140 minutes
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