Movies: Dark Side Rising

The first three Star Wars were epic. The next two, not really. Now George Lucas has pulled out all the stops and finished the cycle with Revenge of the Sith

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Toward the end of Revenge of the Sith, the malefic Darth Sidious advances on Yoda, most of whose comrades on the Jedi Council have been cruelly cut down as the Republic is betrayed and the evil Empire spreads its vulture wings. "At last," the Sith lord hisses, sensing victory over a foe, "the Jedi are no more." Yoda, with all the knowledge and power of the Force compacted into a two-foot fur ball, squints sternly and issues one of his upside-down oracular sentences: "Not if anything I have to say about it."

The Star Wars saga could have ended 22 years ago, when Return of the Jedi concluded the trilogy of space-fantasy films that revolutionized mass entertainment, from the making and marketing of movies to the design of toys and video games. George Lucas' exhausting eight-year adventure--one that no studio had wanted to finance--turned into an improbable triumph. Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Jedi (1983) earned $1.3 billion worldwide, back when that was real money. Lucas became one of the richest men in movies, the bright lord of his own destiny. Now he could direct those artsy little films he kept saying he wanted to make.

One problem, one long, tantalizing loose thread. In Lucas' eyes, the Star Wars odyssey was wrapped up only at one end. He had shown how Luke Skywalker marshals a band of rebels "to destroy the Sith," as the prophecy had it, "and bring balance to the Force." Still, in the filmmaker's mind was another, more complex tale: how ambition can twin with obsession and twist toward the dark side--how Luke's father Anakin devolved into the deadly Darth Vader. Lucas' brain teemed with plots and characters, exotic creatures, worlds to be spun out of the words and sketches in his notebooks. Also, by numbering the extant episodes IV, V and VI, he was implicitly promising a prequel trilogy to the millions of Star Wars fandroids.

"So I said, 'Well, I'll do the last three because if I don't, I'll probably regret it,'" he recalled recently, sitting in his office at Skywalker Ranch, the 6,500-acre Marin County, Calif., production facility that his Star Wars largesse bought him. "And then I got a lot of people saying I was going about it the wrong way." But Lucas' gift, maybe his burden, is an artistic stubborn streak--a determination to follow his own voice and style. Change the course he had set? Not if anything he had to say about it. And, really, he had the only say. "I said, 'I want to tell this particular story in this particular way, and we'll just get there.'"

On May 19, you'll see where they got: back, finally, to the beginning. The narrative arcs of the grand epic, gracefully bending in a double helix, will be complete. Anakin (Hayden Christensen), the handsome, headstrong young Jedi, will be lured by impulses both arrogant and poignant to collide with his awful fate. Under Darth Sidious, the Sith Empire will shred and swallow up the fragile Republic. Anakin's Jedi guru, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), will scuttle into hiding, as will Yoda. Over the galaxy, the silence of repression will fall, broken only by the cries of two infants, Luke and his twin sister Leia. "This is the movie that people have wanted to see," says Christensen, who in Sith steps confidently into Anakin's turbulent and agonized manhood. "And it does it in a clever enough way that you're never a step ahead of the story."

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