Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is the only series entry (thus far) I haven’t seen at the cinema. After the first two prequels I felt no great urgency, and it isn’t an omission I’d be hugely disposed to redress for (say) a twelve-hour movie marathon, were such a thing held in my vicinity. In the bare bones of Revenge of the Sith, however, George Lucas has probably the strongest, most confident of all Star Wars plots to date.
This is, after all, the reason we have the prequels in the first place; the genesis of Darth Vader, and the confrontation between Anakin and Obi Wan. That it ends up as a no more than middling movie is mostly due to Lucas’ gluttonous appetite for CGI (continuing reference to its corruptive influence is, alas, unavoidable here). But Episode III is also Exhibit A in a fundamental failure of casting and character work; this was the last chance to give Anakin Skywalker substance, to reveal his potential and why his turn to the dark side was such a tragedy. At this, Lucas fails completely.
Revenge of the Sith moves along at a clip, though, and its depiction of the unchecked downfall of the Galactic Republic is engrossing for its pervading darkness, despite (always despite) most of the content being created on a computer screen. And while Hayden Christensen is unable to convey anything approaching likability or maturity, it’s worth remembering he was only 24 when this came out. That’s a year younger than Mark Hamill when A New Hope was released, and the difference in age shouldn’t be underestimated. Lucas really needed to cast older and go younger for Attack of the Clones; a furrowed brow, glowing eyes and a ’70s mullet do nothing to suggest an older Anakin (nor does buffing up for another sweaty nightmare).
Anakin is still petulant, still rash, still wilful, and was only ever thus. This may have been Lucas’ conception for the character (who knows, everything went through so many variations), but it really means the audience has no “in” point with him. It would have been nice to see the Anakin that resurfaced thanks to Luke’s cajoling, but Christensen’s Anakin didn’t have a positive side to begin with. The scenes of him gradually turning, or slaying etc., aren’t a dead loss, they wield some impact, but they’re an abject disappointment in context, and they’d be so much stronger with a performer able to convey an entire range of emotion surrounded, aided and abetted by actual physical scenery, props and co-performances.
As with Attack of the Clones, this all comes down to Lucas’ choices. There’s never a point where we see the Vader that will be in Anakin, because Anakin goes straight from surly brat to robot stooge. And no, I’m not forgetting wheeling on James Earl Jones voice for “Nooooooo!” (and wheeling him back on to say the same for a Return of the Jedi special special special edition; good God, George, you really have no conception of when to stop). That’s more than enough evidence right there that Lucas didn’t have the faintest objectivity about tonal content in the prequels.
This is the child who still repeatedly snarls “It’s not fair” and (disastrously) “I hate you!” after his legs are severed (of all the possible responses in such circumstances, that isn’t the one that springs to mind). Sure, Anakin can be young and impressionable, but age him up five years and grant him a bit of intelligence too, and a modicum of personability. Don’t make him merely a dupe, and make his loss feel something. As it stands, I’m more left wondering why Obi-Wan didn’t gets a pointy stick and roll his former young Padawan from the edge of the lava bank, as leaving him to flambé like that is a bit much.
With regard to the “Balance of the Force” prophecy, the one that goes round and round the prequels, perhaps Lucas is to be commended for leaving it open-ended (my understanding is that he does consider Anakin to be the balance), perhaps he has no real concept of what the balance means in practice. It isn’t like The Force Awakens (let alone the EU, in whatever now-redundant incarnations) is going to leave the galaxy as neat, tidy and Return of the Jedi-positive. To be honest, though, I have a problem even with the term as defined; the Force’s ideal state is supposedly light, so restoration would be a better term, balance suggests something more Zoroastrian, equal and opposite co-existing.
Senator Palpatine: Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise?
At any rate, the lore added here, to be taken, or left, comes with possibly the best scene in the prequels (I know, slim pickings), as Palpatine invites Anakin to the Star Wars universe’s equivalent of a night at the opera, where he recounts the tale of Darth Plagueis. The quality of fear of loss and death motivating Anakin would have been a strong enough central motivator to have granted him much more accessibility than we got in the first instance and then still understand his ready accession to the Dark Side. As such, the lure of attaining the knowledge of Plagueis represents a perfectly lustrous dangling carrot (Anakin: Is it possible to learn this power?; Palpatine: Not from a Jedi).
McDiarmid is outstanding in this scene (even if he goes a bit OTT when wearing his Emperor prosthetics later), registering casual disapproval of the abilities “some consider unnatural” to keep loved ones from dying and create life (the implication being that the manipulation of midichlorians may have been the source of Shmi’s virgin birth; apparently EU lore considers a combination of dark side intent and Force finessing to have instigated Anakin).
This is one of the few scenes in the prequels that conjure the kind of mythmaking and world building that cemented the Original Trilogy in the mass consciousness, the kind of thing the prequels themselves did their utmost to tear asunder and denigrate. It’s mythmaking that needs to continue under Episode VII if Star Wars is to regain its essential sense.
Ironically, while Obi-Wan is far more crucial to the plotting of Revenge of the Sith, Ewan McGregor is able to exert a lesser impact than he did in Attack of the Clones. This is possibly because he spends so much time battling CGI. The opening sequence, where he and Anakin “rescue” Palpatine, is essential a thrill-free picking up of where Attack of the Clones’ final act left off, as a multitude of stuff swarms busily across the screen. Even Obi-Wan’s offhand quips (“Oh, this is going to be easy”) are less welcome.
Senator Palpatine: It’s only natural. He cut off your arm and you wanted revenge.
From the point of view of plot progression, he has to be put out of action so Anakin can kill Dooku in cold blood, but off the back of his injury in Attack of the Clones he doesn’t seem very capable, while Anakin very much is. That said, I rather like the way Lucas favours sudden turns of events in his lightsaber battles; he’s not one for slow motion or labouring the point as you’d get in many a movie, and crucial moments are more effective for that.
Senator Palpatine: His death was a necessary loss. Soon I will have a new apprentice. One far younger, and more powerful.
Christopher Lee may be in the picture for only a few minutes, but he makes the most of Dooku’s demise, his look of surprise, missing his mitts and at the mercy of Anakin, when Palpatine urges “Good, Anakin, good. Kill him, kill him now”. This initiates a series of dramatic incidents that could have been so much more so if handled by someone interested in visualising them in the most resonant manner (imagine the Irvin Kershner of The Empire Strikes Back directing this).
Obi-Wan Kenobi: Another happy landing.
The preceding sequence includes business with lifts, and R2-D2 slopping oil over droids; it’s cartoonish CGI silliness, which pretty much describes General Grievous, this chapter’s one-off villain. Lucas steps fully into the realm of CGI bad guys and thus creates a black hole in Obi-Wan’s subplot.
The affectation of a cyborg with a CGI cape, stoop and a cough isn’t the worst of Grievous’ problems; you never once believe he’s in the same frame, so when Obi-Wan is sent on a CGI mission to bring the CGI villain to justice, it’s markedy inferior to his pursuit of Jango in Attack of the Clones.
Well, not entirely; Bruce Spence (more of Lucas watching The Lord of the Rings, no doubt) makes an impression as Tion Medon, one of the few non-CGI aliens on Utapau. That aside, the entire sequence is a wash, from Obi-Wan riding around on a CGI lizard mount, giving chase to Grievous’ wheely-machine, to the lightsabre fight where Grievous has four blades (more isn’t more when there’s no substance to interact with).
Even killing Grievous, shooting him in his living heart, is an odd moment, with Obi Wan quipping “So uncivilised” as he discards the blaster; should a Jedi not mourn any loss of life? It seems ironic that a director who tortures himself over Han shooting first should let something far more obviously straightforward slip by.
The through line of Anakin leads, of course, to his confrontation with Obi-Wan on Mustafar. Anakin’s path has been very coarsely traced, such that badness leads to badder-ness accompanied by unconvincing self-recriminations (because we know he’s a bad egg to the yolk). The internal struggle is as faint as could be, from “I shouldn’t do it” with Dooku to “What have I done?” on dismembering Angriest Ever Jedi Mace Windu.
That he kills the “Younglings” (a terrible, terrible name) is a still bigger step beyond that he takes on the chin; again, the dramatic momentum of the plot carries these events (and McDiarmid’s urging), rather than anything Lucas brings in terms of moviemaking. Even more than with earlier instalments, Lucas’ threading the events together is perfunctory, hitting the notes but without any thought that he should be creating a symphony.
Anakin Skywalker: You turned her against me!
Obi-Wan Kenobi: You have done that yourself!
Lucas fashions a series of strong plot developments (Palpatine pressuring the Council to make Anakin his representative, and the Council then refusing to invest Anakin as Jedi Master, so creating further resentment in him, nursing the seeds of discontent by suggesting Anakin is the natural best person to track down Grievous, and then seeing the task given to Obi Wan) but having Anakin respond like Kevin the Teenager on each occasion divests them of potency. If anything, his resentment of Obi-Wan in reference to Padmé could have been taken further, giving voice to the seeds of suspicion that she might be having an affair with him, that the child might be his; the escalation to Force-strangling the woman he professes to love is, by this point, a convincing development, but it’s still lost in the scramble of a kid having a scrap against green-screen lava.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: You were the Chosen One!
This should have been the grand battle to top all grand lightsabre battles, but about the only part that really hits home is the same suddenness of dismemberment we’ve seen before; there isn’t a protracted fight when it comes to leaping to the high ground, and I rather like that it’s resolved so simply.
Unfortunately, this is preceded by an atmosphere-diffusing fight down a river of lava, its opponents travelling in the equivalent of a bathtub and a sink as they exchange blows. Lucas doesn’t understand that simple and elegant would carry far more weight, symptomatic of the sequels generally.
However weak Anakin’s fall is compared to its potential, it at least carries something. The treatment of Padmé in Revenge of the Sith is nothing short of appalling. Leia may have ended up in a slave girl outfit in Return of the Jedi, may have got a bit broody over an Ewok, but Fisher ensured she remained a wilful and self-assured character no matter what Lucas did with her. Padmé only deteriorates, losing any sense of individuality once she hooks up with her chemistry-free amour.
Padmé: So this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause.
It’s a small victory that Portman is given probably the best line in the movie (above), as the Empire is formed “for a safe and secure society” (again, Lucas’ pertinent points about sacrificing our freedoms for protection from a nominal, distilled enemy are buried beneath his virtual environment) but for the (young, malleable, but still considered) politician of The Phantom Menace it’s very much a scrap from Master George’s table. Particularly since it’s preceded by a clumsy conversation with Anakin where she voices the lines that are drawn (Padmé: What if the democracy we thought we were serving no longer exists, and the Republic has become the very evil we’ve been fighting to destroy?; Anakin: I don’t believe that and you’re sounding like a separatist).
Doctor: For reasons we can’t explain, we are losing her.
Ask George, he can explain. Padmé becomes the weakest of weak characters in Revenge of the Sith, existing in fear of the loss of her man, and revolving entirely around his mental state. She has nothing in the way of a singular plotline, hanging on the fringes of the action and becoming so upset by him that she gives up the will to live when he turns; it’s an enormous slap in the face from Lucas, and it’s difficult to believe he was unable to come up with something that gave her a bit more credit (quite aside from Padmé dying when she does creating a discrepancy with Leia remembering her real mother). And, if she’s so abandoned, distressed and devoid of hope, how come her dying words are “There’s good in him, I know it”. Oh, because Lucas is more concerned with linking the saga, getting to Captain Antilles, than making his characters considered or rounded.
The intercutting of birth and rebirth is obvious but effective, but as above it’s tempered by the execution and the pervading sense Lucas is pushing to get to the point of A New Hope rather than embracing the story he has to tell.
Yoda: Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them not, miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed that is. Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose
Sage words from Yoda there. The descent into ineffectuality of the Jedi is at least well-actualised, and Lucas grasps the manner in which even an illustrious order can fall into rust and decay. It remains unclear how much is intent and how much carelessness, however. Most commonly, they are given to (as in Attack of the Clones) statements of what’s under their noses (“I sense a plot to destroy the Jedi”), the sort of thing that would be obvious to anyone with eyes and ears, no Force sensitivity required. Characters jump about according to the demands of the moment, so Obi-Wan, the former doubter, is now staunch in his belief in Anakin (“He will not let me down. He never has”; what about that time with Dooku, then?) while Yoda and co finally grow suspicious of Palpatine.
Mace Windu: This assignment is not to be on record.
The underhand acts the Jedi resort to bear noting too; Anakin is right to blanche when he is told to report back on Palpatine; he’s essentially asked to become a spy, a CIA or NSA guy snooping on the constitutional president, in his mind a treasonous act. And Paplatine is essentially correct when he claims “The Jedi Council want control of the Republic” since through removing him from office they will be required to take control.
Part of the problem is that the Jedi are much more potent as an idea than showing them as a collective force of Force-users; the “ancient religion” of A New Hope and Anakin’s “The Jedi are selfless. They only care about others” carry much less weight when we witness their ponderous deliberations or lack of compassion. That mythical state remains elusive, however intentional it may be in part that the prequels are structure around the Jedi in decline, so we’re left with the impression they were never much cop.
To wit, the complete absence of ethical principles in their use of Clone Troopers. It’s interesting that Lucas includes a scene with Commander Cody (Temuera Morrison, with CGI’d armour), presumably as a reminder that they’re supposed to be clones of Jango Fett and not actually really obvious CGI facsimiles at all. But the effect is to get one thinking about the ins-and-outs of what has been allowed, and the implicit support the Jedi have given (despite the Council having rejected his suggestion, good Jedi Sifa-Dias initiated the programme that was then corrupted).
These bred individuals are divested of freewill, slaves to the Jedi and the Republic, and no one blinks an eye. Without this scene, thanks to the welter of CGI that informs them, we probably wouldn’t reflect on their lot much either. So one might say Palpatine is right, and the Jedi get what’s coming to them (albeit the Younglings is going a bit too far, even if they appear to have been selected from the same casting session as Jake Lloyd).
Meanwhile, Mace Windu might not go out like “some sucka” (the severed limbs really earn this one its PG-13), but the confrontation further reflects what an ill-fitting Jedi he is. Of course, he’s in good company with all the other ill-fitting Jedi of the prequels.
The Order 66 protocol is another tasty bit of plotting, with the clone army turning on the Jedi at the appointed hour. Except that the rendering is once again by way of a welter of CGI characters mowing down other CGI characters, with the odd exception. So too, I’ve already complained about Yoda being a lightsabre-wielding whirling dervish, and this is compounded in his fight with Palpatine, who’s also a lightsaber-wielding gymnastic nutter.
Darth Sidious: I have waited a long time for this moment, my little green friend.
These top Force jockeys should not be lowering themselves to basic pugilism; throw shit about, fine, send bolts of lightning, fine. But there’s nothing impressive or dramatic about seeing yet more duels between characters we know have no real physical weight/dexterity (it’s particularly inappropriate that they end up fighting on the Senate’s central dais, since it brings with it inverse scale as a tiny area to tussle in). It also doesn’t help that Palpatine introduces himself like he’s talking to Kermit.
As consistently good as Ian McDiarmid is as Palpatine, his Emperor is much less persuasive than the version his 39-year-old self-essayed in Return of the Jedi. Apart from anything, the makeup is less effective than it was 22 years previously. Nevertheless, the path of Palpatine/the Emperor is probably the one element that can be claimed as a success throughout the trilogy.
Whereas a consistently egregious element is the endless in-referencing:
Yoda: Good relations with the Wookies I have.
Really? How exactly, and why “Goodbye Chewbacca, miss you I will”? This relentless wretchedness encumbers the prequels, entirely irrelevant but inserted to connect every goddam thing. Did Yoda have an affair with a Wookie in his youth? What’s his affiliation? Lucas includes a baffling (literal) shout out to Return of the Jedi with a Wookie’s Tarzan yell, so fixated is he on all the wrong details.
The only surprising thing about Yoda’s CGI excursion to Kashyk (lest we forget, originally considered for Return of the Jedi before he decided Wookies were too technologically savvy) is that the Wookies are actually guys in suits (apart from the ones who aren’t). Scarcely conceivable. And again, the Imperial Guards we see towards the end are actually guys in suits.
Yoda: Into exile, I must go. Failed, I have.
Oh, don’t give up so easily. Where’s your Jedi spirit? Elsewhere we see Padmé’s Leia donut hair (fashions presumably come and go), a Tarkin stand-in, a skeletal Death Star, Mon Mothma, and Yoda announces, to Obi-Wan’s joy and our weary acceptance of inevitability, that Qui-Gon can be communicated with from beyond the grave (this may seem completely unnecessary, but it comes from the mind that brought us midichlorians).
Darth Sidious: Unlimited power!
With the prequel trilogy Lucas has become his own Emperor, unchecked in his ambition to do whatever he wants, however detrimental, to a once great universe. There are strong ideas in Revenge of the Sith, and the bare bones of the plot itself are entirely solid (the treatment of Padmé and petulance of Anakin aside). Like The Empire Strikes Back, it opts not to end with a huge (space or otherwise) battle (a good thing, but only a third of the saga thus far has eschewed the easy way out), and proceeds to a note of (rather hasty) reflection. But it’s by way of a pixelated blur of CGI characters and action that shames even Attack of the Clones. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is involving to the extent that the backstory Lucas came up with decades earlier is involving. Unfortunately, he does everything in his power to disabuse us of this, the intervening advances in effects technology leaving his worlds unrecognisable and unpalatable.