It’s hard to believe, but the Pop Culture Studio’s six-month long Star Wars-themed series of articles is almost finished. Looking back, I’ve noticed how much the series has focused primarily on the original Star Wars trilogy, and there’s a reason for that: those three flicks are, well… kinda better than the prequel films that followed.
Even so, it seems a bit of a missed opportunity to totally gloss over what currently amounts to 50% of the Star Wars saga. That’s why this month, I’m taking a look back at the latest – and at the time of its release, final – instalment in the series, Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.
When it first came out in 2005, Revenge of the Sith was generally better received than its predecessors, and watching it now 10 years later, I’ve found that it’s both a lot better and a lot worse than I remembered.
Set three years after Star Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith opens during the closing days of the galaxy-spanning Clone Wars. Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his newly promoted apprentice Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) are among those desperately trying to protect the failing Republic from its enemy, the ruthless Separatist movement.
When Kenobi is called away on a mission that could ensure victory for the Republic, the enigmatic Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) takes advantage of the elder Jedi’s absence to expand his influence over young Skywalker. Palpatine’s primary tool soon becomes Anakin’s fears for the safety of his secret wife Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), whose death he has foreseen via a Force-fuelled vision.
As Palpatine’s behaviour starts to suggest there is more to him than meets the eye, the two most senior Jedi – Yoda (Frank Oz) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) – start to unravel a terrifying plot to conquer the galaxy, one which will have terrible consequences for Skywalker, Kenobi and Amidala.
Right off the bat, let me just say that Revenge of the Sith has, without doubt, the tightest screenplay of the prequel movies. Series creator George Lucas has also delivered easily the most well-paced of the three films, and most surprisingly of all, his script manages to tug at the heartstrings and evoke a feeling of genuine tension throughout.
That said, the film is also plagued by several of the same problems that hampered Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. The most obvious of these is the dialogue, some of which is flat-out retched (and I’m not just talking about some of Yoda’s mangled syntax, either). Characters regularly say aloud exactly what they’re thinking, and the romantic dialogue between Anakin and Padmé sounds like something you’d hear from a pair of high school sweethearts (and not particularly bright ones, at that).
Revenge of the Sith is also a bit of a mess tonally, as well. It almost functions as two separate films (one bad, one good) fused together in the middle. The first half of the film is an awkward affair. It’s overly juvenile (the killer robots say “excuse me”) and, as I’ve already mentioned, it’s populated with characters who express exactly what’s on their mind or in their hearts, and with words that aren’t exactly poetry.
The second half, however – when Anakin’s seduction to the Dark Side gets going in earnest – sees the maturity level of the material dramatically increase, and the overall standard of filmmaking picks up as well. Most notably, this stretch of the story is punctuated by a series of dazzling montages, with cross-cutting so effective you’ll even find yourself comparing Revenge of the Sith favourably to the original Star Wars trilogy.
This 180-degree about-face away from mediocrity and infantile storytelling allows Lucas to build real emotional engagement with his audience for the first time in the prequel trilogy. And once we’re invested, he’s also able to ratchet up the tension, as well; by the time the third act rolls around, the sense that we’re watching the end of an era unfold is palpable, and this is when Lucas chooses to ramp up Revenge of the Sith‘s thematic subtext.
Unlike the other two Star Wars prequels – which always felt paradoxically overstuffed and undercooked, thematically speaking – Revenge of the Sith feels like it’s actually got something to say, and that something is both timely and timeless. Lucas touches on everything from how readily societies sacrifice liberty for the promise of security, to the duality within individuals and public institutions, and even free will versus fate, and mostly sticks the landing.
The acting, like the Revenge of the Sith itself, is also decidedly uneven.
McGregor continues to be the MVP of this trilogy. Not only does he turn in his best Alec Guinness impression yet, he also makes the most of the chance he’s given to display a wider emotional range, too. Portman and Christensen struggle by comparison, although this is largely due to some of the shocking lines they’ve been given.
To be fair to Portman, her performance in Revenge of the Sith isn’t actually that bad (if a little one note), however, Christensen still suffers from a penchant for line delivery that oscillates from flat to just plain weird. What’s more, his Anakin never quite manages the leap from petulant teen to disturbed adult, and his metamorphosis into the villainous Darth Vader seems rushed (although again, that’s as much the script’s fault as Christensen’s).
Of the supporting cast, McDiarmid is the stand-out as Palpatine and his wicked alter ego, Darth Sidious. For the first hour or so, McDiarmid is in full Shakespearan mode, offering a nuanced take on the Chancellor’s seductive play for Anakin’s loyalty. Once we hit the halfway mark, though, McDiarmid throws subtlety out the window in favour of scenery-chewing villainy, and the film benefits from the unabashed fun he has playing an out-and-out bastard.
And then there are the CGI thespians.
Yoda first made the jump from puppet to pixels in Attack of the Clones, and that transition has finally been perfected in Revenge of the Sith. True, some of his movements are distractingly more dynamic than what his puppet self was capable of, but the wider range of facial expressions the little green guy now has at his disposal prove invaluable given some of the dramatic scenes he has. His former puppeteer Frank Oz is still as good as ever on vocal duties, too.
That said, fellow CGI performer General Grievous is a bit of a disaster. Steeped in digital overkill and relying on splutters and anatomical gimmickry over actual characterisation, he pretty much symbolises everything wrong with the prequels. Voice actor (and Revenge of the Sith sound editor) Matthew Wood does his best to elevate the role with a committed, cartoonish turn, but Grievous simply doesn’t work.
Fortunately, the rest of the digital and practical effects work by ILM and the stunt team fare much better, even a decade on. As any effects guru will freely admit, on a film of this size, there’s always a best and worst shot, but even if some of Revenge of the Sith‘s less impressive effects appear crude by modern standards, there’s still a lot to love about the design and effects work on display. That might come as a shock given the negative reputation the prequels’ CGI has developed, but honestly? A lot of this stuff holds up.
Something that will come as less of a shock is that John William’s score remains as fantastic as ever. Originally intended as a swansong soundtrack for the entire Star Wars saga, William’s music deftly weaves in and reworks leitmotifs from across both trilogies. It also introduces a bunch of new themes, most notably a haunting lament that does a lot to sell the tragedy of what’s happening on screen.
Thanks to the effects, design, and score, we finally see the two Star Wars trilogies marry up, and if – like the marriage of Anakin and Padmé – it’s not exactly a perfect union, it still works well enough to satisfy.
Ultimately, how you feel about Revenge of the Sith a decade later depends largely on whether you loved it or loathed it the first time around. If you remembered the movie as being just as bad (or worse) than the two films that came before it, you’ll probably find it far more enjoyable than expected. If your initial reaction was that Lucas hit an absolute home run with his last ever entry in the series, you’re likely to come away thinking you may have overreacted just a little bit.
For me, Revenge of the Sith – heck, the entire prequel trilogy – has a lot in common with Anakin Skywalker: it’s well-intentioned, often spectacular, deeply flawed, and in need of redemption. With Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens nearly upon us, here’s hoping director J.J. Abrams and his team can drag these films (and with them, the entire franchise) back into the light when the opening titles roll on 17 December 2015.