What Revenge of the Sith purported to be was all anyone who wanted Star Wars prequels to exist ever wanted to know: “How does Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader?” Did visionary auteur George Lucas pull it off?
Almost exactly like Attack of the Clones, when Revenge of the Sith came out, it was well-received. Having revisited AotC on home video for two years, Star Wars fans had decided it was not good and that Revenge of the Sith was, in fact, the “prequel we always wanted!”
For one, it was as “dark” and “edgy” as Star Wars fans seemed to want. The ships and sets had evolved as the films got closer to the timeline of A New Hope, and Revenge of the Sith seemed to “look like Star Wars”. In 2005 a lot of hardcore Star Wars geeks, even originalists who crudely insisted “George Lucas raped my childhood,” ranked Revenge of the Sith as good or just better than Return of the Jedi.
That seems absurd now.
By this point George Lucas had insisted that Star Wars “was the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker”. There would be no previously hinted at Episodes 7-9. The release of Revenge of the Sith was the end of an era for a certain fandom. It was bittersweet for everyone.
I had lived in Los Angeles for about nine months when Revenge of the Sith came out. I was 23. I’d given up Star Wars collectibles and, believing George Lucas this would be the last-ever Star Wars movie, was out of theories to debate on the internet. Star Wars fandom had exhausted me. I was ready to be done.
I really liked Revenge of the Sith during its release. I thought it was more consistent than Return of the Jedi, if not as good. But I definitely rated it as the best prequel at the time. I saw Revenge of the Sith five times in the theatres and only once on home video, when I watched all six films in one day.
And I haven’t watched it since.
Do you remember when the lights went down in the theater, when you held your breath as you were about to behold The Last Star Wars Movie Ever, and how your heart swelled when the bombastic opening theme played and the crawl began to scroll, even in spite of the two previous flawed outings? And do you remember that opening shot of the Jedi Starfighters, how they pulled around a giant cruiser to reveal an epic space battle — the Clone Wars in full swing, and the euphoric hope that wait a minute goddammit, maybe George hit it out of the park this time!
I had that same feeling watching the blu-ray edition on my 55″ Sony TV at home ten years later in 2015. Sigh.
Just as I remembered, the pacing in the opening prologue to Revenge of the Sith is greased lighting. But on blu-ray, in high-def, playing off a Sony Playstation 4, all the action looks like a Pixar cartoon. I feel like The Phantom Menace is 70-30 real-to-CGI sets. Revenge of the Sith feels like 20-80. My heart sank when I realized R2D2 was completely CGI during the entire assault on General Greivous’ ship. The soul of the thing, reduced to a synthetic virtual fileset, in the avant garde name of convenience.
The Coruscant chase after Zam Wessel in Attack of the Clones was a tease for the Anakin and Obi-Wan Comedy Hour to come in Revenge of the Sith. (And if you can believe it, even more jokes are in the cut scenes on the extras DVD!) It’s corny, but you can tell McGregor and Christiansen are having fun (on a Star Wars green screen set?!) and it pays off. Finally, after three movies, you believe Anakin and Obi-Wan fought side-by-side in the Clone Wars as friends. Hayden Christiansen is actually pretty good in this one!
(Quick aside: In Attack of the Clones, Anakin tells Padme that Obi-Wan is “like a father” to him. In Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan refers to Anakin as “like a brother”. The latter is the correct relationship, the one they should have had all along.)
Anyways, Obi and Ani assault General Grievous’ ship, where Count Dooku has feigned holding Chancellor Palpatine captive. It’s a trap! And just like in Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan is rendered immobile (Dooku 2, Kenobi 0) and it’s up to Anakin to defeat the Count. In a glorious moment for the Only Two Sith Rule, when Anakin has Dooku pinned, and Dooku looks to Palpatine for help, good ol’ Palps tells Anakin to kill Dooku. No doubt Palpatine sensed Dooku’s eventual treachery, regarded his current apprentice as old and busted, and traded-in for the newer Chosen One model.
It’s a great fuckin’ scene. Just like in at the end of Return of the Jedi, in the beginning of Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine watches two potential apprentices duel to see which is strongest. And in both scenes, it is Anakin Skywalker who makes a choice. Nice work, George!
Once they’ve rescued Palpatine, the two Jedi move to escape the ship — but not before facing off against General Grievous, a droid commander with some bio-mechanical core parts. (More on him later.) Grievous escapes, the heroes crash-land on Coruscant, and we’re off to the pod races!
Much as I love the opening of Revenge of the Sith, Toontown background sets and all, it’s still challenging. Dooku was well set-up in AotC and then promptly dispensed with in favor of Grievous. You need Dooku out of the way for Anakin to step in his place, but it feels like a waste of an interesting Sith lord. Grievous is pretty interesting too, but it’s a little late in the third film of your trilogy to introduce a new villain to occupy the heroes’ time.
Speaking of Grievous… there was lots of fan speculation he was a reconstituted Darth Maul. (I don’t think so.) But it is interesting that Dooku trained him, and his has a Sith-like name. (Plagueis, Sidious, Tyranus… Grievous?) I think the implication is that after failing to woo-over Kenobi, and getting older by the day, poor ol’ Dooku settled on a bio-mechanical droid to groom for his own apprentice. I like it.
In as far as the story is concerned, to better tie-in with Attack of the Clones… couldn’t Dooku have lived and filled Grievous’ role in the movie? Or could Anakin have turned in the prologue instead of the climax, and could Darth Vader have lead the Separatist Army in the Clone Wars? Grievous is a fun, completely extraneous character and his presence in the picture is one of the reasons Revenge of the Sith doesn’t quite work as it should.
So! Now that Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Padme are back on Coruscant there’s lots of time for meetings in the Senate about whatever, meetings in the Jedi Council about whether or not Anakin should sit on the council but retain the rank of Knight (Snore!), and more poorly executed soap opera between Anakin and Padme — this time about her pregnancy.
No, seriously, there is 25 minutes of talking in rooms. Yippee.
Remember how Attack of the Clones faltered in the middle because there’s a lot of sitting around in rooms talking, then Obi-Wan goes off on his own adventure while Anakin is tasked with waiting around for something to just… happen? Guess what? Revenge of the Sith follows the exact same misguided structure!
This time Obi-Wan is charged with going after Greivous and Anakin is left on Coruscant to protect Chancellor Palpatine, even though every top-level Jedi in the universe thinks it’s a bad idea. The Jedi are so concerned with Anakin’s closeness to Palpatine, they decide to… ask Anakin to stay close and spy on the Chancellor. Great plan guys.
And oh hey, remember in Attack of the Clones when Dooku tells Obi-Wan that a Sith Lord controls the senate? Did it never fucking occur to Obi-Wan to maybe look into that claim? Or like, I dunno, does it never occur to him that just maybe if it were true then Anakin really shouldn’t be spending so much time with Palpatine?! Obi-Wan tells Anakin not to trust Palpatine, he regards Palpatine as a dodgy dude, but never seems to connect it to what Dooku told him in Attack of the Clones. It. Is. Maddening.
Anyways, Obi-Wan goes to Utapau and rides a squeaky dragon. Then there’s an arduous action sequence where Obi-Wans’s squeaky dragon mount chases Grievous’ droid hoola-hoop. The Obi-Wan kills Grievous.
On Coruscant, some cool stuff happens! One of the Top 3 Scenes in the Prequels is when Palpatine reveals to Anakin the fable of Darth Plagueis the Wise. It is intimated 1) Plagueis learned to prevent death, 2) was Palpatine’s master, 3) was killed by Palpatine, and 4) that Palpatine used those powers to create life instead, forging Anakin in Shmi Skywalker’s womb and creating his own perfect apprentice.
Good shit! This, by the way, is what Lucas meant to set-up with midichlorians. He stepped off “the m-word” because it was so toxic with Star Wars fans, but that’s what’s going on here. Ian McDiarmid acts the hell out of this scene, and it’s one of the places where the prequels make the OT better.
(Ian McDiarmid, by the way, acts the hell out of every scene. He knows exactly when to play subtle and when to chew scenery. Every second of screen time with Ian McDiarmid in Revenge of the Sith is absolutely delicious.
And Ewan McGregor gets better each movie, too. He successfully created the character that logically concludes with Sir Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan, one of the prequel’s greatest achievements.)
Eventually Palpatine reveals himself to Anakin and appeals for him to join the dark side. In a shocking display of directorial aptitude, Lucas has Anakin turn the Chancellor in to the Jedi! In Attack of the Clones, Anakin is completely self-interested but in Revenge of the Sith he is conflicted. One moment he is loyal to the Jedi Order, the next he is loyal to his mentor Chancellor Palpatine. The Anakin tug-of-war between Palpatine and Obi-Wan really works in this movie. And even when Obi-Wan fails, when Anakin finally turns to the dark side, he does so out of a conviction that it’s The Right Thing To Do. That’s problematic for a number of reasons, but it is at least interesting.
By the way, all while this is going on, Yoda is on Kashyyyk helping Chewbacca defend his home planet from droids. Why is the leader of the Jedi council deployed on a field mission far away from the sensed source of dark force energy and General Grievous when he has, like, eight other undeployed Jedia Master council members twiddling their lightsabres on Coruscant? Because fanboy service. And because George couldn’t figure out how to get Anakin to turn dark unless Yoda was out of the picture. Ugh.
So now whenever you watch an original trilogy Star Wars movie, and whenever Chewie growls in wookie, pretend he’s saying: “Oh yeah? Did you know that I’m good personal friends with Jedi Master Yoda?!”
Of course Anakin eventually turns to the dark side, after aiding in Mace Windu’s death. The impact on the audience is lessened because Obi-Wan isn’t there to witness it. (Instead he finds a holo-recording much later) and Anakin’s ultimate reasons for turning dark so are so damn frustrating. Anakin has visions of Padme’s death during childbirth, and he turns dark in hopes of saving her. Uhhhh, George? You spend this whole trilogy exploring themes of greed up until the point where it should come to a head! And now Darth Vader becomes Darth Vader out of love?! COME. ON.
Here’s what I wish happened in Revenge of the Sith: I wish Obi-Wan and Anakin never left each other’s side the entire movie, so we could agonize over Obi-Wan’s failure to save Anakin. I wish Padme was with them and not standing around in rooms the entire movie. And I wish Anakin’s turn to the dark side was not out of misguided passion for his wife, but out of a creeping lust for power. I wish he found that tempting dark side powers were helpful on the battlefield. I wish he grew more and more powerful, slipping closer and closer to shadow, in the fog of war where great men do bad things.
And then, when his wife was placed in danger due to the fact that War Is Hell, Anakin makes the ultimate turn to save her — of course, failing in the process.
But nope, none of that happens!
The rest of Revenge of the Sith, at least almost all of the important parts, is pretty great, actually. Anakin kills younglings. Order 66 happens and a bunch of low-ranking clones successfully gun-down the galaxy’s most powerful Jedi. (You know, this could have been a time lapse montage of Anakin hunting them all down…) Yoda and (now Emperor) Palpatine duel in the Senate chamber, tearing it to pieces (get it?), and Yoda’s arrogance is rewarded with embarrassing defeat.
The duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin is almost great. Did you know Steven Spielberg storyboarded it? And because they shot lots of real-life lava plates for the effects, some of it looks incredible!
There’s just this little goofy section where Obi-Wan and Anakin are surfing on steel platforms on a river of lava (um yeah) and they pass by some kind of alien teamster who is casually… farming lava. Or something. It’s an utterly ridiculous Lucasian “throw a creature in there!” shot that totally spoils the climactic battle of his life’s work, the fulcrum on which the entire saga rests. Lava farmer!
At the end of the duel, Obi-Wan cuts Anakin to pieces, Palpatine rescues him, there’s a lot of needless exposition to A New Hope, and then the movie is fucking ruined. You know what I mean.
That. Fucking. Scene. Anakin finally dons the Darth Vader armor, awkwardly asks what happened to Padme, and then screams — here it is again! — Nooooooooooooooo!
The Anakin Skywalker that cared for Padme, their children, Obi-Wan, or anybody else should have been dead before the armor when on. When the armor goes on, Darth Vader needs to be the villain in the opening scenes of A New Hope. The character in the Darth Vader armor in Revenge of the Sith never registers as “Darth Vader” to the audience, which is arguably the only thing this film had to accomplish to be considered a success.
So I rate Revenge of the Sith as a failure.
There’s a way to enjoy this movie. The CGI sets, the squeaking dragon, the Anakin and Obi-Wan Comedy Hour, one last time… Nooooooooooooooo!, the whole stinking affair. If you watch Revenge of the Sith the same way you watch, say, Flash Gordon (1980), it’s kind of great. It is both awful and brilliant, both well-acted and hammed-up, immensely creative and astoundingly lazy. It’s a contradiction, a What A Weird Movie, I Can’t Believe This Thing Exists enigma at the center of the Most Popular Story of All Time. It is George Lucas’ vision.
And for better or for worse, like the two prequels preceding it, Revenge of the Sith is Star Wars. It is the authentic and only way Anakin Skywalker turns to the dark side and becomes Darth Vader. It’s real. All of it. And there is so much it does right, it’s not too hard to make peace with it. Though it still ranks 6 out of 7 for me.