It’s the final piece of the Star Wars prequel trilogy and — perhaps unsurprisingly — Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is the best of the prequels and, if I may be a touch heretical, on a par with Return of the Jedi. It very much echoes what made the original trilogy special, despite having many of the problems that plagued the other prequels.
A large part of that has to do with payoff — we suffered through The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones just to get to that iconic moment when Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker turns to the Dark Side of the Force and becomes Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith. And for the most part, this movie delivers on that.
So let’s start with what Revenge of the Sith got right before we figure out the bits that went wrong.
For starters, we have a clear, less convoluted movie than the first two prequels. The Clone Wars are raging, the Republic is shown as being well under the thumb of Chancellor (then Emperor) Palpatine. The Jedi are generals leading the clones against the Separatist droid armies, and we see Palpatine’s strings turning both sides into his puppets. Yes, this B-plot strand — the rise of the Empire — was handled very poorly in Attack of the Clones, but it’s well-established and works here. Points for that.
In terms of A-plot — Anakin’s fall — we knew since Episode II that love would be Anakin’s downfall, mostly because George Lucas telegraphs with all the subtlety of a Manhattan rush hour. Nonetheless, the film does a good job of selling Anakin’s desperate desire to save Padme from the death his Force dreams foretold. The fact that Anakin himself was ultimately instrumental in her death is a nice turn.
Both plot threads ultimately come down to personal, good-versus-evil showdows, a staple of Star Wars from the beginning. We see Yoda taking on the new Emperor, and Obi-Wan battling the newly turned Anakin/Vader. Despite knowing how both confrontations will ultimately turn out, there’s plenty of suspense and emotion, particularly from Ewan MacGregor, who’s finally given license to, you know, emote and act like he knows how.
And we get the birth of Luke and Leia, the twins who would ultimately bring down the Empire and redeem their father. Particularly liked how the music echoed their themes from the original trilogy as they were introduced.
There were other elements in Revenge of the Sith that echoed the original trilogy and, thus, worked as a Star Wars film. The first two prequels had very static, almost boring introductions, neither of which evoked the intensity of the opening of A New Hope, in which we see the massive power of a Star Destroyer. Here, we’re thrown into a pitched battle over Coruscant and the film doesn’t let up for a good 10-15 minutes. There’s some pretty nifty action sequences, from dogfights to lightsaber battles, and they even manage to grab a few character notes with Anakin and Palpatine as Count Dooku meets his final reward. Good stuff.
The humor finally found its footing in Revenge of the Sith as well, with Obi-Wan taking more of the quippy, Han Solo role. I’m OK with this, as Lucas finally resisted the urge to go into cute overload. This is a dark movie, and it deserved to have more adult humor to go along with the darkness.
Finally, Revenge of the Sith succeeded in the payoff. We see Anakin transform into the Vader we all know, including the moment he puts on the mask and we hear the breathing. Juxtaposing this transformation with the birth of Luke and Leia, while very heavy-handed, was nonetheless a good idea.
Now for the bad stuff.
Heavy-handed is a good descriptor for this movie. Lucas doesn’t leave anything to chance, practically labeling individuals with large EVIL signs. I suppose this is better than the tangled, incomplete strings left in Attack of the Clones, but subtle this movie is not.
Dialogue is as overwrought and ham-handed as ever. It’s particularly egregious when Anakin and Padme are alone together on screen. The lines are horrid, the readings stilted and flat and just…no. Honestly, prior to this viewing, I would just fast-forward through that dialogue, simply to avoid cringing. Hayden Christiansen and Natalie Portman are fine actors and better than this material; the blame lies squarely on writing and directing.
Speaking of Natalie…what the heck happened to Padme’s agency? Good Lord, she pretty much got fridged. She spends the bulk of the film pining away at home and trusting her husband — whose instability is increasingly obvious throughout — to do what’s right. Then she decides to go after him, a particularly brainless call that echoes the love-is-blind issues she suffered through in Episode II. The wise thing, of course, would be to get a ship and fly to the other end of the galaxy to have your kids well away from the monster your husband has become. But she doesn’t get to be wise here, and her character is ultimately wasted, sacrificed to the story instead of enhancing it.
The Jedi Council again comes of as hugely simplistic and naive, as it did in Episode II when nobody bothered to question to provenance of the clone army. They didn’t think to even check for embedded commands like Order 66, nor did they think to come up with countermeasures. No matter how badass Mace Windu is, you don’t take just three other Jedi with you to arrest the Sith Lord who managed to take over the Republic and has millions of police and soldiers at his command. The fate of the galaxy is at stake! Nuke Palpatine from orbit!
On the topic of scorched earth, I’m very surprised Count Dooku just accepted his fate meekly. He knows Palpatine just sold him out to the Jedi, and yet says nothing. The Sith are not loyal — they all ultimately rise up to kill their masters, apparently — so why wouldn’t Dooku seek to cut a deal and cast suspicions on Palpatine? Bring it all down, get out with your skin intact to fight another day. Nope…not a peep. Inexplicable.
The rest of the inconsistencies — like how nobody noticed the start of construction on the Death Star — can be relatively easy to hand-wave, and I’m not going to go into them. Blessedly, the resolution of Anakin’s fall and the Empire’s rise are handled with surprising straight-forwardness. And that’s why they work, both on their own and in the context of what it means to be a Star Wars film.
Ultimately, Revenge of the Sith worked in ways the other two prequels didn’t even approach. Say what you will about the prequels or the acting or whatever, seeing that mask going onto Vader’s head for the first time still gives me chills. And if nothing else, that moment tees up, and pays tribute to, the original trilogy.
Next up: Star Wars…also known as Episode IV: A New Hope.