The first two films of the Star Wars prequel trilogy were met with mixed reviews (to put it kindly), but fans still held high hopes for Revenge of the Sith, the film which would finally show us just how Anakin Skywalker, Jedi Knight, became Darth Vader, Lord of the Sith. We would also finally see the duel between Anakin and his mentor, Obi Wan Kenobi.
Fans, ultimately, remained just as torn as ever about the final result, with some proclaiming it the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back, and some calling it just another meaningless prequel. So, ten years since its debut, what does Revenge of the Sith look like today? As our year-long Star Wars series continues, Matthew Guerruckey, Donald McCarthy, and Lawrence Von Haelstrom are joined by Scott Waldyn for a surprisingly emotional look back at the end of the George Lucas era of Star Wars.
Matthew Guerruckey, Editor-in-Chief: As we’ve gone through this series, we’ve spent a bit of time talking about how it can be difficult to be objective about Star Wars, as a hardcore fan. We’ll explain away plot holes, and embrace moments that we know in our hearts to be terrible, until they become beloved quirks that we look forward to with each repeated viewing, rather than things that make us cringe. I know there are faults in the original Star Wars trilogy, but it’s a part of my childhood. I can’t divorce myself from the deep-seeded emotions that the films bring out of me, nor would I want to.
The Phantom Menace, likewise, reminds me of a certain place and time in my life that I feel an ever-increasing nostalgia for as I get older. The kind of freedom that only exists in hindsight, when your day-to-day reality at the time was as unsure and full of longing as it at any other time in your life. But the movie itself is so filled with mistakes in casting, plotting, and execution that it’s impossible to look past them. Attack on the Clones, on the other hand, is so devoid of character and emotion that there’s just nothing to grab onto.
All of this preamble is to say that I was surprised while re-watching Revenge of the Sith, for this series, to find that my emotional connection to the movie, and to the time in my life that it represents, were stronger than I had imagined. I know, objectively, that much of Revenge of the Sith is bad–even very bad. But none of that matters to me on a personal level. I fucking love this dumb movie.
When Episode III came out, I was in a marriage and a job that were steady in their routine, but in another year both of them would be over, in messy fashion. My life was in an antebellum phase, and so, naturally, my reflection on that time is shadowed by the pain that would come after it. But even while I was in that marriage and working that job I felt a change coming, in the form of an unsteady, gnawing energy that things just weren’t right. A feeling not dissimilar to what Anakin Skywalker feels in the first half of Revenge of the Sith.
So I look back on that time with a sort of lost hope, wondering what I could have done differently, but also happy that things did fall apart, because it led to the life that I have now. There’s a complicated set of emotions connected to that time, and many of those emotions–especially the fear and the anger–are reflected in Revenge of the Sith.
But even though I’m painting this melancholy picture of my life at that time, I should also say that my first viewing of Revenge of the Sith is my favorite movie-going experience ever. Episode III is–still–the only movie that I’ve ever lined up to see at midnight on the night of its release (and I had to wake up at five the next morning!). There were four of us–me, my wife, one of my best friends, and his wife–all of us huge fans. We lined up early, but maybe not as early as we should have. The line coiled from inside the theater, out the door, and around most of the outdoor mall in which the theater was located. We ended up somewhere toward the very back of that line. As it happens, that was perfect for my friend, who loves to sit in the front row. And, sure enough, by the time we actually got into the theater, that was all that was left.
Sitting that close took some getting used to, but I’m glad it worked out that way. Being that close to the screen, in a crowd filled with joyous geeks dressed in Jedi robes, allowed me to become absorbed into the world of the movie in a way I wouldn’t have been otherwise. I was in the middle of that opening space battle, I got to see (in a way that you can’t otherwise) the glorious shade that Mas Amedda throws at Bail Organa as they talk over viewscreen, and the duel between Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi–something that I had been picturing in my head for twenty-two years at that point–was all flaring lightsabers and stirring John Williams music.
I’m not going to rest entirely on emotion during this discussion. There are some unforgivably bad moments in Revenge of the Sith, and I can’t wait to dig into them.
But the movies we love are tied into our emotions, so let me say again: I fucking love this dumb movie.
After our first screening, my friend, who would see the film with me three more times that summer, said, “Well, Star Wars is over. I guess I have to grow up now.” So, Lawrence Von Haelstrom, since you were that friend who was so excited to be in the front row, how do you look back at that time? And did you, indeed, grow up?
Lawrence Von Haelstrom, Contributing Editor: Ten years later, I now have a Masters degree, a real career, and a child. I even go to the dentist every six months. I guess I did grow up. And come to think of it, maybe this points to why I’ve been less than excited about The Force Awakens. I’ve grown up since Star Wars ended and I don’t have the desire to do this thing all over again. A new Star Wars movie now is like an old friend from college who still says, “What do you mean you can’t go get drunk on a Tuesday?”
It’s hard to believe that 2005 is a decade in the past, but looking back it was a long time ago. George W. Bush’s second term was just beginning, Barack Obama was still just that guy who gave a good speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. While we were waiting in line at that theater in Glendale, in the block around us there was a Tower Records, a Circuit City, a CompUSA and a Borders Books. RIP, every single one of them. Times have changed.
While I had spoiled myself silly before Attack of the Clones, I kept myself mostly in the dark leading up to Revenge of the Sith. Somehow all of us had always known that Obi-Wan and Anakin had fought on a volcano planet, and all I really wanted out of the movie was to finally see this. However, from the opening scene of the movie, I was drawn in and sold. The two small Jedi fighters flying across and over the proto-Star Destroyer from silence into a full, overwhelming battle is one of those magical cinema moments. One of those moments that cause that indescribable sensation of thrill and sparked-imagination that can only happen with movies. From this opening scene to the near-surreal lightsaber duel in fire, Revenge of the Sith creates these moments many times.
If you love this movie, you don’t need to apologize for it. It is not dumb. It’s certainly not perfect, but so what? For a flawless version of this type of movie see Marvel’s The Avengers. There you’ll see your perfectly-timed dramatic beats and satisfying character arcs. You’ll see solid themes of camaraderie and duty. You’ll see a flawless movie, but you won’t see a truly great one. I’ll go ahead and put this out there now, so I can come back and defend it later: Revenge of the Sith is not only one of the best Star Wars films, it is one of the best films of the twenty-first century. Beautiful, unexpected, and challenging, it’s a singular work of art.
Scott, before we get into the meat of the discussion, what were your first impressions? What do you think now?
Scott Waldyn, Film Department/Editor-in-Chief, Literary Orphans: I was a senior in high school when this movie came out. It was a transition period for me, as by this movie’s release, my love for Star Wars was waning. I grew up with Star Wars, having watched the original trilogy over and over and over. I read the books. I played the video games. And after two lackluster prequel movies, Revenge of the Sith became the pivotal release that would decide my fate with the universe.
I don’t remember why, but we had a half-day of school the Thursday just after this movie’s Wednesday night release. When the midday bell set us free, some friends and I walked downtown (we lived in a very small town in northwest Illinois) to the theater and stood in line. The reviews were in. The news anchors were buzzing. Revenge of the Sith was different. Better. A thrill ride I couldn’t wait to see that even Roger Ebert commended.
When the movie dumped us out two and a half hours later, one of my friends kept going on and on about the wookies and how great they all were. I bit my tongue. As we walked out of the theater, there was a line outside with eager Star Wars fans. A small boy, maybe no older than eight or nine, looked up at me and asked, “How was it? Is it good?”
“Good” wasn’t a term I understood as subjective at the time. I shook my head and continued my solemn walk back into the downtown district. Star Wars was over. A universe I spent countless hours fantasizing about and breathing life of my own into was nothing more than a hollow shell. I soon saw Star Wars as the empty, cash-grab vessel I had learned to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers as. Time proved Alec Guinness right. It was garbage.
It would be many years before I found that spark that brought back my love for the original trilogy.
Having revisited Revenge of the Sith after ten years, my feelings are more complex. I’m still not a fan, though I don’t carry the vehement hatred for it I once did. It simply exists, and it reminds me of so many big-budget franchise films we’re inundated with every summer. They’re clunky and dumb, but they can be very pretty. That’s what Revenge of the Sith is. It’s a dense, vibrant blur of colors I watched both with sound and on mute. I like it more on mute, and admittedly, while I compared this to our regular summer blockbuster flood, I’d imagine a muted Revenge of the Sith would prove far more interesting than a muted superhero film.
The chatter, especially from those poor robots on General Grievous’ ship, is what gives this movie its death sentence. George Lucas made a silent film, but someone forgot to turn the dialogue off.
Donald, has your opinion of this movie evolved over the years?
Donald McCarthy, Features Editor: I was really excited for Attack of the Clones, but I was fucking pumped for Revenge of the Sith. I became an uber-fan in my early teens and I read every comic and book that came out between the two films. I bought the lead-in novel, Labyrinth of Evil, the day it came out.
In other words, I was setting myself up for a big ol’ letdown. I don’t want to sound like I didn’t like Revenge of the Sith when I saw it in theaters. I loved it. But, a number of plot points nagged at me because I’d built them up so much. No ghost of Qui-Gon? Padme just dies of a broken heart? Why is General Grievous hacking like an idiot all the time? (Well, I knew why, thanks to the lead in material, but it sure seemed like a bad choice once you heard him) Yet I couldn’t deny the power of many of the scenes.
Now, my overall take of the film is the same: very good, but with some questionable decisions. However, the particulars have changed a lot over time. For one, more of the dialogue stood out as terrible over time. Natalie Portman is godawful in this and sells none of her lines (admittedly, the script plays a large part here, but I think Portman gave up). Second, Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side comes too quickly. I can just believe it, but I need to do some squinting to try and make the connections. Considering the whole trilogy rested on this turn, that’s a problem.
So much of this film does work, though. In a way, I’d say it’s the perfect George Lucas film. It shows his flaws, but it also magnifies all of his attributes. The film’s atmosphere is great. The visuals and the sound editing is perfect. Scott talked about watching it muted, and there is a great version of this film that has no dialogue (music and sound effects need to stay, though).
One of my favorite moments in the film occurs during the fight between Yoda and Palpatine. When Palpatine steps into the middle of his room and the segment rises into the Senate chambers with the camera pulling back is epic, in the literal sense. It’s also thematically key to the prequels. Yoda, the one who calls for restraint, is battling Palpatine, the one who used war for his own ends, in the middle of the Senate, the place where democracy is “held.” They then proceed to fling the rotundas that the Senators sit in at one another and the Senate chambers is literally ripped apart. There’s more thematic depth in this one scene than in most blockbuster films. When we talked about Attack of the Clones, I said that Lucas had a ton of political points he wanted to make about democracy and corporations, but they didn’t come across strongly because of how much a mess that film ended up being. Here, Revenge of the Sith is rich with theme and discussion. When the film came out, A.O. Scott said how impressed he was that Lucas seemed to be going against all the blockbusters that came in the wake of the original Star Wars by actively trying to make it a film that dealt with real, current issues while not losing the fantastical setting.
This is not a perfect film. I do think it’s the perfect example of a George Lucas film, though, and, unlike with Attack of the Clones, I’m not embarrassed to watch it or tell people how much I enjoy it.
I find it funny to think back to when I originally saw it, a little over ten years ago, when I was just shy of 16. My love of Star Wars has evolved, but it’s still as strong, just in a different way. The same goes for this film.
I’m writing this only a day after the release of the final trailer for The Force Awakens and I’m curiously unexcited for it. I’m going to see it and probably on opening night. But there’s something missing. I think, for all his flaws, I just can’t get as excited about a Star Wars film without George Lucas. Revenge of the Sith is a great example why. This is a Lucas film through and through and for all its flaws, here I am, ten years later, still eagerly writing about it.
Matt, you clearly have an emotional relationship with Revenge of the Sith; is it strange that it’s no longer going to be the last film of the saga? Does that change your relationship with the film at all?
Matthew Guerruckey: To be honest, no, because I was never entirely convinced that Revenge of the Sith was going to be the end of the saga. I figured some day George would set his new obsession with computer animation on the events that came after Return of the Jedi. I fully expected to sit down in a theater some day for a Star Wars movie that continued the adventures of Luke Skywalker, but I admit I never thought we’d be seeing Hamill, Ford, and Fisher suit up again.
The only change that The Force Awakens has made to the way that I feel about Revenge of the Sith is that I’m no longer sure which order to watch the saga in. Lucas has always claimed that the proper way to do it is in episode order, starting with The Phantom Menace, and going on through Return of the Jedi. But that order never worked for me, not only because it spoils the huge twist in The Empire Strikes Back, but because the end of Revenge of the Sith is filled with images that work best as call-backs, not foreshadowing. The final shot of Owen and Beru staring into the binary sunset of Tatooine, holding baby Luke Skywalker, works because we have already seen Luke standing in that same spot. So we know that even in this dark moment for the galaxy, that baby represents hope, and the longing that he feels at that spot is what will propel him into action to save his father. The story works best as a mobius strip that circles back on itself, an eternal return. But now, if we’re going to be continuing the story post-Return of the Jedi, it probably really does makes sense to watch them in episode order. I guess we’ll find out in a few months.
My own feelings about the trailer for The Force Awakens are mixed. There are some impressive visuals, I like what I’m seeing so far of the new characters, and that new arrangement of the old John Williams music is gorgeous, but I’d like to know what the movie is about, because I’m a little worried that it will be about nothing. In that sense, I’ll echo your sentiments, Donald, about being wary of a Star Wars movie that does not include the ideas and vision of George Lucas. You can say all that you want about the man’s mistakes or his ego, but he knows what Star Wars is about, and each movie is about something. The original trilogy is about overcoming fear, and the prequel trilogy is about succumbing to it.
That’s why I buy Anakin’s turn to the dark side -- I believe Anakin’s fear. Though The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones feature clunky character development, they still both advance the idea that Anakin Skywalker is continually losing the people that he cares about, and that he is afraid that he will continue to lose everything. So when Anakin arrives at Palpatine’s office and finds Mace Windu standing over him, threatening to take away his one chance to save Padme, his choice has been building over the course of three movies. Windu even echoes a line, “He’s too dangerous to be left alive”, that Palpatine said to Anakin when he commanded him to kill Count Dooku. So who, exactly, has Anakin’s best interests at heart? Look, the scene is terrible, maybe the worst in the movie, but I have no problem understanding Anakin’s motivation. The combination of Anakin’s fear, the manipulations of Palpatine, and the power of the dark side of the force create Darth Vader, and it will take his son’s lack of fear to return him to Anakin Skywalker.
But beyond the emotional themes of the film, Revenge of the Sith also deals with some very specific political themes. Attack of the Clones was written in a pre-9/11 world, but Revenge of the Sith is very much the product of 9/11, the Iraq War, and the Patriot Act. The film poses the question, how much of your freedom are you willing to surrender in the name of security? For Anakin, that answer is all of it -- by the movie’s end, he surrenders his humanity and compassion to become a machine of The State. Also, Anakin makes his choice based on Palpatine’s hints that he already knows the way to keep Padme from dying, but once Anakin turns, all that Palpatine can say is that together they will learn how to cheat death. Meaning that Anakin goes to war with the Jedi based on a lie -- a direct parallel to the war in Iraq.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, and especially The Dark Knight, also uses political themes in this way, from a conservative angle. But while Nolan is regularly called a genius for his use of allegory, Lucas never gets credit for the political statements of Revenge of the Sith.
Lawrence, you called this movie one of the best of the 21st century. I can’t quite sign on for that, but I do think that it captures the distrust and fear of our time in a visceral way. It’s wrapped up in legend and myth, but it’s still there. So, what do you think of the political underpinnings of Revenge of the Sith, and why do you think they’re so often overlooked?
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: The political commentary is there, but it is there as subtext, not allegory. Allegory is easier to spot and easier to make. While a political reading of Revenge of the Sith is possible, there is not the simple analog you would find in allegory. You can’t just say Palpatine is Dick Cheney and call yourself and the film genius. The leftist political reading is just one of many critical readings the film stands up to. And that is why that angle is often overlooked.
The key scene in the film is when Palpatine and Anakin meet at the Opera House. It’s a seduction scene, with Palpatine carefully showing Anakin the power he holds and could share with Anakin. It’s not only a turning point in the film’s story, it’s also a clue to us on how to view the film. This sort of scene is standard in film. A powerful bad guy holds court with an neophyte up-and-comer at a public event. It could be ringside at a boxing match, VIP suite at a football game, or a private box at an opera house. The bad guy displays his wealth and power. He makes a show of his divided attention, keeping his eyes on the action in front of him. The neophyte tries to act cool and do the same but relishes any of the few direct glances toward him. So why does this particular scene take place at an opera house, and not at a podrace stadium? Because the film is telling us, the viewers, that the following events are to be seen as opera--a theatrical spectacle of heightened reality. The film is not a document of ostensible actual events. It is an operatic spectacle. (And while the actual performance we get a glimpse of appears more like space Cirque du Soliel than space opera, it stands that it is some sort of live, theatrical and musical performance.)
How can Padme die of a broken heart? Because in the spectacular reality of opera, that is what happens.
When I say film and I really should say “film,” as Revenge of the Sith was shot on digital video. And when I say shot, I really should say “shot” because there is very little profilmic, photographed content. Further, what profilmic content there is has been digitally re-composited, reframed and reformed. The world of this film does not exist in our reality. It is a composed reality. In the twenty-first century, this is how cinema is made. This is neither good nor bad in and of itself. Last night, I watched Avengers: Age of Ultron on DVD. The opening scene pretends to be a single, long-take of the familiar Avenger heroes beating up a series of bad guys. But, of course, this is a actually a carefully animated scene assembled from green screen footage and computer animation over the course of months. The scene works. But, it’s ostensible realism is an artistic step back from what Revenge of the Sith achieves. The computer animation and special effects in Revenge of the Sith are convincing but they also don’t ignore their artificial nature. In the final duel on Mustafar, the film allows itself to drift into surrealism. The rocky hillside where Anakin bursts into flame looks--intentionally--like a theatrical set . The film is not expecting us to see it as photographed reality, it is pure imagination.
It’s important that the one non-green-screened practical set in the entire film is Bail Organa’s spaceship -- a reproduction of the set from the first scene of the original Star Wars. It’s a visual call-back/foreshadow of what to expect in the coming episodes.
Scott, you are right that the dialog is not the strength of this film. It is certainly not literature. The storytelling, the emotions, and the art of the film lies in its visuals, its editing, and its sound. I still have more things to say, and next time around, I’ll try not to sound so film-studiesy, but for now, what changes do you think would have made the movie work better for you?
Scott Waldyn: It’s a well-documented fact that George Lucas isn’t an actor’s director. His interests lie in the visual aesthetics of cinema, which is great, but his weakness in directing actors really shows in his films. In the case of Revenge of the Sith, allowing someone else to direct the day-to-day filming of the actors could have gone a long way.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s the chatter that ultimately kills this movie for me, along with those damn Separatist battle droids and General “Smoking Kills” Grievous. In some scenes, the dialogue is so atrocious, it butchers the tone. As Matthew mentioned, the scene where Mace Windu confronts Palpatine is meant to be a powerful scene, a turning point where Anakin must finally come to a decision, but the dialogue comes out so terribly, this scene can arguably be one of the most horrible moments in Revenge of the Sith. Mace Windu’s shrieking of, “He is the traitor! Ahhhh!” is an example of the quality of line-reading audiences get that plummets the exchange to Tommy Wiseau’s The Room level of awfulness. This scene isn’t an isolated moment, either. All of our principal cast members dole out questionable performances. Even poor Ewan McGregor has his bad moments, which brings me to another point.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that Revenge of the Sith proved an interesting experiment in 21st Century cinema, one where we learned that our actors still need items, sets, characters, and objects to look at when they’re acting. I say this because our cast members have all turned in better performances elsewhere, and part of it makes me wonder if it’s because they’re unsure of their surroundings. Case in point, Ewan McGregor looks like a putz when he duels General Grievous on Utapau. His reactions are aloof, and his timing is slow. It’s a high-stakes duel with a four-armed, four-lightsaber-wielding CGI monster, and what’s Obi-Wan doing? Swingin’ slowly and half-smirking like some idiot who got into the special brownies that one friend from Washington made.
There’s one last comment I want to touch on before I pass the mic. Donald and Matthew mentioned the political commentary in Revenge of the Sith. This commentary is a beautiful call-out by George Lucas to what was (and still is) going on in the real world. It’s brilliant and also arguably the best part about Revenge of the Sith. What I want to touch on is Matthew’s comment about how people call Nolan a genius for his political commentary, yet not Lucas. I think the reason for this is simple: The Dark Knight, by a large margin, is generally recognized as a much better film. Many people aren’t willing to mine a film they view as a “bad movie.” I don’t agree with that sentiment, but I can understand it and see where Lucas gets the brush-off, much to our loss.
Donald, you mentioned a couple of times that this is a “perfect George Lucas film.” I’m intrigued by this idea and still not quite clear what you mean. Can you please elaborate? (Also, I would have to agree that music and sound effects should be left on for “mute” mode -- would love to see that version of the film).
Donald McCarthy: Your comment on the actors needing more concrete items to interact with in order to put in a great performance is interesting and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. That would go along with Ian McDiarmid being the best performer in this film, and he’s damn good in it: he’s a theater actor (check out his credits; it’s insane). He doesn’t need much in the way of sets to get rolling. I remember in the behind the scenes footage for The Phantom Menace Lucas had some very complimentary remarks about McDiarmid and I think McDiarmid is probably the best actor for a director like Lucas. McDiarmid can manage any line of dialogue, any location, and has been a director himself.
Perhaps that’s why Revenge of the Sith works so well for me. McDiarmid’s performance in it is a powerhouse and he seems to be just as much of a lead as Christensen and McGregor. McDiarmid was in the first two prequels, of course, but in this film he really gets the chance to shine. He’s given scene after scene to shine and he delivers every time. Both Matt and Scott mentioned above the Windu/Palpatine/Anakin scene as being a disaster. While I wouldn’t call it that, it’s definitely a letdown. Anakin’s argument that Palpatine needs to stand trial and Mace can’t just execute him is an interesting one that goes almost entirely unexplored. Samuel L. Jackson is terrible, for some reason, as if he forgot how to sell a line. McDiarmid, though, is so much fun to watch. From his pitiful little “please don’t hurt me” to unleashing the lightening while, inexplicably, screaming, “UNLIMITED POWER.”
I harp on this one scene because McDiarmid rises above two actors giving subpar performances and a scene that is scripted in a rushed and undeveloped manner. That’s a gold standard actor right there.
Outside of that scene, pretty much any moment with Palpatine is excellent. From him slowly revealing who he is to Anakin in a calm and logical fashion, as if being a Sith makes all the sense in the world, to the opera house sequence and his story about his master, to his speech to the Senate about a new Empire, to the way he gleefully tells Darth Vader that Vader killed his own wife, there is never a dull or uninspired moment when McDiarmid is onscreen.
I want to talk about all of these moments, but I’m going to pick the scene where Palpatine reveals he’s a Sith Lord because it shows why I think Revenge of the Sith is the perfect George Lucas film.
First, the flaws and we must start with Hayden Christensen. God bless him, he’s trying in this scene, he really is. But Anakin’s dialogue isn’t great and he can’t sell the betrayal and anger; he just comes across as whining. This really epitomizes Lucas’ biggest flaws when it comes to directing actors and writing dialogue.
The rest of the scene is Lucas firing on all cylinders. We’ve talked about overuse of CGI, but the background effects in this scene, from CGI to the beautiful mural, achieve the effect of making the viewer feel like s/he is peering in on a different, vibrant world. Back in the original Star Wars, Lucas gave us a galaxy that feels lived in. The same here. The mural tells a story, but we’re not privy to the specifics. When Anakin walks in, Palpatine is working on some sort of involved holographic document. What is it? Who knows, but it goes to show Palpatine has a lot of other shit going on; he doesn’t just dick around with Anakin all day, y’know?
McDiarmid’s acting in this scene is magnificent. There are a lot of bad performances in the Star Wars saga, but there are actors Lucas clicks with and clicks damn well with. McDiarmid is one. Others are Alec Guinness, Mark Hamill, and Liam Neeson.
In this scene, watch Palpatine start out as a concerned, but also slightly pathetic, father figure who just can’t figure out why his boy isn’t popular. Once he stands up, there’s a very slight change in his voice, a hint of certainty. Palpatine and Anakin walk forward, into Palpatine’s parlor. Lucas pulls back to give us a wide shot of the two of them entering; behind them are two golden statues looming large, like the history of the Jedi and the Sith. We’re suddenly away from just the two characters and seeing the large, epic saga that is Star Wars.
Lucas cuts again and we see, in wide shot, the mural Palpatine has, adding more history and weight to the scene.
Once Lucas cuts back to closer shots, we are back in the immediate conflict, but with the weight of history added. Palpatine’s voice changes once again when he mentions studying the nature of the Dark Side. He speaks as if he’s a naughty boy who has glanced at porn, but is excited by it. His voice goes calm again as he tells Anakin he can save his wife. He flashes this small, weird, almost sadistic yet still empathetic smile that’s chilling. Then he whips out the ol’ Darth Sidious voice before calming down again, appealing to Anakin’s love for Padme.
Lucas goes wide shot again when Anakin activates his lightsaber. He shows us both the murals and the statues again. This is an epic moment, history is all around them and Anakin now has the power to dictate the future. What will he do?
Well, we know what he’ll do, but it doesn’t lessen the scene’s impact. Lucas is at his best when he get meld great characters with a sense of a larger, vast universe that we can only see a small part of. This scene does that, although differently from the original Star Wars. The original showed us hints of the downtrodden history, while Revenge of the Sith shows us hints at the Arthurian history of the Jedi and Sith. We’re just allowed a peek, though, just a peek, while we watch our current character, Palpatine, fascinate us with his every move.
Damn, don’t you just wish the prequels all revolved around him?
So that’s why I think this is a perfect George Lucas film. It has scenes that show everything he’s great at and Palpatine’s revelation is such a scene. The flaws are still there, but Lucas’ talents make them almost irrelevant.
What performances stand out to you, Matt? Either big or little.
Matthew Guerruckey: I mean, sure, if we’re talking about performances, let’s talk about Ian McDiarmid. Let’s talk about him all day long -- he’s great in this, and he’s also terrible in this, in a way. Because he is just so over the top. I mean, you brought up that amazing line reading of “Un-limi-ted POWAHHH!”, but everything he does in the rest of the movie, once the Jedi break into his office, is exactly that crazy. His performance is literally divided between the chilling calm that you described in that brilliant scene by the weird (Sith?) mural and him going full Emperor. “It’s treason, then” is the last line that McDiarmid delivers as a human. Once every pretense of political decorum is unnecessary, he becomes a howling creature, snarling and gnashing his teeth. It’s like he’s saying to the Jedi, “this is who I really am, motherfuckers, and you are not ready for it”. Sure enough, they’re not (poor, poor Kit Fisto).
But if we’re talking about acting, it’s going to be hard to find anyone else who rises to McDiarmid’s level (Frank Oz probably gives the second-best performance in this movie). Everyone else is pretty bad, or at least has bad moments. Ewan MacGregor’s having a lot of fun, and is very charismatic here (furthering the argument that maybe Obi Wan should have been the central hero of the prequel trilogy), but even he lapses into awkward pauses and line deliveries -- the kind of moments that most directors cut, but Lucas leaves in all of these prequels (but not the original Star Wars, so go figure). And while we’re talking about line deliveries, Samuel L. Jackson gives one of the worst line readings of his career, of any actor’s career, in this movie. It’s his reaction to Anakin’s news that Chancellor Palpatine is the Sith Lord that they’ve been searching for. “A Sith Lord?” Jackson asks, as if he was completely unfamiliar with the words presented to him, and maybe new to the act of speech. It’s just poetically bizarre, and yet it has this weird rhythm to it that’s all its own, and so it’s always fascinated me. “A Sith Lord?” It’s one of my favorite parts of the movie, because it’s just garbage acting.
But that all goes back to what you said before, Donald, about this being a perfect George Lucas film. Mark Hamill once said that if there was a way to make movies without actors, George Lucas would do it -- and in Revenge of the Sith, the actors are really just props that can be placed exactly where Lucas needs them to be. There’s only enough time spent on motivation and character emotion to give you the basics, and then we’re off to explore more of this wonderful world that he’s created. Because, in the end, that what Lucas cares about: his world. Lucas has always dreamed of creating a completely immersive environment -- that’s why he gave Star Wars its famous “lived-in” quality. The more a viewer believed the little details, the less time they would spend questioning the story. But, as Lawrence alluded to, Lucas also wants his movie to maintain a certain level of cheesy effects, like a Saturday matinee feature would have. He wants you to to see some of the wires. So what we get on screen here is pure, uncut Lucas. Attack of the Clones is another film in which digital trickery allowed Lucas to throw whatever he wanted to on the screen, but you can feel how much more engaged with his material Lucas is in Revenge of the Sith. I think that if you asked George Lucas what his crowning achievement as a director was, he would say this movie.
But while we’re talking about crowning achievements, let’s talk about the music of John Williams. Throughout this series we’ve mentioned Williams, and just how much his brilliant work adds to the depth and texture of this world -- and especially these characters. It’s impossible to separate these movies and his score. But while Williams has been consistently strong throughout the series, there are a few films, notably Return of the Jedi and Attack of the Clones, where much of what he’s doing feels recycled. Great, but overly familiar. But his music for Revenge of the Sith is bold, emotional, stirring, terrifying, commanding, inspiring. A large part of what makes this film so enjoyable is the way that the score underscores, and sometimes even fully provides, an extraordinary depth of emotion to the scenes. Take the scene, right after Anakin has told Mace Windu about Palpatine (“a Sith Lord?”), in which Anakin and Padme seem to connect to each other from a distance. There’s very little going on in the scene -- it’s really just Anakin and Padme sitting in chairs and staring out of windows, mixed in with a pretty CGI sunset. The music helps the audience feel Anakin’s conflict and fear, as well as his love for Padme. All of these building emotions combine to lead him into a terrible choice.
But the music doesn’t just clue us into our character’s emotions, it helps link all of the prequels together into a coherent whole. Toward the end of the movie, as both Anakin and Obi Wan and Palpatine and Yoda duel, Williams overlays a rousing version of the “Duel of the Fates” theme that scored the duel between Obi Wan, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace. Through the music, we are taken back to that moment, and we realize that what Qui Gon was fighting to stop is exactly what we’re witnessing -- both Anakin’s fall and the Sith’s rise to power. That makes Anakin’s turn to the dark side seem all the more tragically inevitable (though, having seen the original trilogy, we already know that it is).
Honestly, I think that the only film in the entire Star Wars saga with a better score is The Empire Strikes Back, and there’s certainly no film in the series that the music does more to enhance. I mentioned earlier that I keyed into the emotions of this movie on a personal level, and those emotions are carried, in large part, by this score. Lawrence, you obviously really enjoy this movie on a number of levels, so I wonder: is any of that an emotional response? Does this movie move you at all?
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: Oh, yes, it does. It’s a film about how good people can fail. The failure here is monumental--an entire galaxy-spanning democracy and a religious order falls to ruin--but it still feels personal. The most moving moment for me is when Yoda, after escaping from the fight with Sidious, tells Bail Orgaina, “Failed, I have.” He's not referring just to the fight but to the entire string of events we’ve seen up to this point -- from not properly training Anakin, to keeping the Jedi order too rigid, to allowing themselves be manipulated into fighting a manufactured war. Yoda has failed. He has failed since the first moment we saw him, and he only now realizes it.
Anakin’s path to the Dark Side is also a string of failures. Anakin has a series of Huck Finn moments where he is forced to make a decision between what he feels is right and what is expected of him. Unlike Huckleberry Finn, who chooses to damn himself to hell by rescuing Jim, Anakin consistently compromises himself. He executes Count Dooku because Palpatine expects him to. He spies on Palpatine because the Jedi Council expects him to. And finally, he murders children because Sidious expects him to. In pop psychology terms, Anakin never developed his fifth stage of moral decision making--to know when and how rules and expectations can be disobeyed to reach a greater good for all. Huck Finn had Jim when he needed a level-headed adult in his life. Anakin had no one. The Jedi and their rules and regulations failed him. Obi Wan failed him. It is significant that the Obi Wan-Anakin relationship in Attack of the Clones is one of father and son. Yet, by Revenge of the Sith, Obi Wan is referring to Anakin as his brother. In the time between the two stories, Obi Wan and Anakin presumably had many adventures, and somehow an equality developed between them. This can be seen as a failing on Obi Wan’s part. It is much easier to be a brother than a father. Obi Wan, as did the Jedi order, failed in the duty to properly guide Anakin to a high level understanding of morality.
I brought this up in our Attack of the Clones discussion, and I’ll bring it up again here. Unlike the original trilogy, the prequel story is not about heroes. The prequel trilogy is about failing. It causes lots of frustration for fans that there aren’t heroic moments in the prequels. By Revenge of the Sith, it finally becomes obvious that no heroes will be saving the day. That will be a story for another time.
Anakin’s string of compromises makes Luke’s choices appear even more heroic. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke faces his Huck Finn moment when he must choose either to save his friends at Cloud City or continue his training on Dagobah. Yoda and Obi Wan plead for Luke to stay. They want to keep the truth from Luke and they don’t trust him to make decisions on his own. They are making the same mistakes all over again. Luke, unlike his father, does what he knows is right despite the expectations of him and heads off to save his friends. Luke is a hero. And finally, in Return of the Jedi, Anakin again sees Sidious torturing someone with force lightning. This time it’s his own son, and once again he is faced with a decision between what is right and what is expected of him. This time, finally and only for one moment, Anakin is a hero.
About the acting: I feel least confident talking about acting, but I’ll give it a shot anyway. Donald pointed out Ian McDiarmid’s theater background, and I agree that’s why he works so well in the prequels (and in Return of the Jedi.) The actors with the best performances--McDiarmid, Ewan MacGregor, Christopher Lee--are all from the United Kingdom and trained in the Royal Academy theatrical tradition. The actors who struggle the most--Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson (Samuel L Jackson! One of the single best actors out there)--are all North American, where Stansislavski method acting is dominant. A film that exists in a heightened, theatrical reality isn’t best served by the naturalistic acting we’ve been accustomed to expect as good. Neither acting tradition is better or worse, but in this film one style does fit better.
It might just be a failure on my part that the bad line readings you all have mentioned don’t bother me. In fact, I love Sidious’ “Power! Unlimited powahhhhh!” Throughout all six films, Star Wars is fairly chaste and sexless, but here we’re seeing a full-on bad guy orgasm. And, back to emotion, I am always moved by Amidala’s desperate, “Ani, you’re breaking my heart.” She’s been ignoring the truth in front of her for so long, ever since Anakin slaughtered the Sandpeople family. Anakin’s selfishness and evil is finally apparent and the revelation is crushing. Others point to that line as one of the bad ones, but it works for me.
Okay, I’ve been selling hard why this is a brilliant movie. Scott, let’s get to the bad. Unleash your anger.
Scott Waldyn: You’re not going to get me to stroll down to the Dark Side that easy.
Episode III just isn’t for me. There’s no love, but there’s no hate, either. I see it as a silly adventure that some people enjoy and others get violently angry about because it doesn’t resemble the Star Wars they grew up with, and personally, I like to think I’m in the middle of these two opposing forces battling for the sanctity of Star Wars’ soul.
I do feel Revenge of the Sith is a bad movie, boring even, but it isn’t an angry, banish it to the forbidden zone kind of “bad.” We’ve all admitted to its flaws, to the hammy acting, poor scripting, illogical plotting, and how the execution is often times clumsy. The arguments why this movie should be viewed as brilliant have been the soundtrack, the sound, the vibrant nature of the background, the political commentary, and the heavy saturation of symbolism in each scene. Reading your arguments, it appears you all can write a book double the size of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology about this movie, which really is a testament to George Lucas’ attention to detail and love of the subject matter. That’s cool.
But this movie isn’t that interesting to me. There’s no one I can really latch on to. There’s no character, no living, breathing soul, I can feel for. Everyone in this movie is a cartoon, some more violent than others.
Lawrence, you mentioned that this prequel trilogy is all about failing. That’s a beautiful understanding and reading. However, The Empire Strikes Back was about failing, too, and there was still someone in ESB I could align myself with who felt real. Several people, in fact. Revenge of the Sith doesn’t have that for me. Sure, we’ve pointed out moments where the background, be it the setting or the beautiful film score, has helped us try to feel the emotions an actor on screen should be conveying to us. But it isn’t the same. Especially in a film that shows both decapitation and our lead character murdering children, packed alongside light-hearted scenes of chatty, blundering robot soldiers with goofy voices and a villain vying for the maniacal laugh of the year award.
What am I supposed to feel? I don’t know.
It’s this “I don’t know” that leaves Revenge of the Sith in limbo for me. We can mine this to death, and I can appreciate all the beautiful sentiments and comments you all come up with (I am fascinated with all of the symbolism you notice in Revenge of the Sith). But when I watch this movie again, I know where I’ll end up.
I used to be angry when I was in high school. I demanded to feel something from this movie. I wanted to feel as I did when I sat in front of the TV as a child and rewatched the original trilogy again and again and again. Those strong emotions were me trying to control something out of my hands.
The fact of the matter is: George Lucas made a divisive movie, and it does nothing for me.
Donald, have you encountered much backlash among your friends when it comes to Revenge of the Sith? Is there a war still brewing as to whether this is good or bad?
Donald McCarthy: I definitely know some people who hate the prequels, but even they tend to make an exception for Revenge of the Sith. I’m a known prequel lover (well, I have a love-hate relationship with Attack of the Clones) and I think most of my friends just accept that.
Scott, you do bring up an interesting point in regards to the tone of the film. When I saw this film in theaters for the first time, I went with my aunt. After the film, she said to me, “That felt like two different movies!” She meant it in a good way, because after the Anakin/Mace/Palpatine scene the film shifted so much, but I can see why others might be irked by it. In preparing for this installment, I watched the deleted scenes on the Revenge of the Sith DVD, and the difference in tone from one scene to the next becomes even more striking. There are more scenes on Grievous’ ship where Obi-Wan and Anakin encounter goofy, dumb droids, making one wonder how the hell the Separatists weren’t destroyed within three days of the war. However, the deleted scenes also contain a smart, political subplot that details the beginnings of the Rebel Alliance (it’s also a subplot that contains a lot of diversity in both race and species -- it would’ve been a nice way to include the xenophobia in Palpatine’s reign that is hinted at but never truly discussed). It’s possible for these scenes to exist in the same movie, but it sure does seem hard to pull off.
This ends up being true in the scenes in the actual film, but I think Lucas just manages it. He’s interested in relaxing the audience -- the first forty-five minutes are practically a Buck Rogers space adventure -- in order to shock them when the Sith hits the fan an hour in. Still, many of those earlier scenes become a little too slapstick. Ewan McGregor handles the goofiness well, but Hayden Christensen isn’t exactly a comedic talent waiting to be found (it’s worth noting that Christensen does have it in him to be a good actor as seen in Shattered Glass; he managed to keep his career going after the prequels, with some successful films like Jumper, but his career quieted in the late ‘00s and his most recent project is a Christian drama film with Kate Bosworth).
Still, the last two-thirds of the movie are so dark that I forget about those slapstick moments. I applaud Lucas for going all the way in terms of absolute despair. Anakin killing the younglings (I will never get tired of that term) is a surprise, to put it lightly, and Obi-Wan and Yoda’s arrival at the Jedi Temple where they see just how much destruction Darth Vader and Sidious wrought is pure tragedy.
The bleakest moment, though, goes to Hayden Christensen. We’ve all enjoyed making fun of him, but when he screams “I HATE YOU” at Obi-Wan it’s a powerful, guttural proclamation that leaves no doubt that the relationship between Anakin and Obi-Wan is done.
The only large flaw in the last two thirds is Yoda’s sudden announcement that he’s been speaking to Qui-Gon. We needed to see that. There’s a deleted scene that shows it happening and I have no clue why Lucas cut it.
Matt said above that Lucas would probably view this as his best film and I think that’s true. While not everything worked well, it’s the film in which Lucas takes the most chances and it’s by far his most fervent attempt at depth.
So, after delving into both nostalgia and critical analysis, what are people’s final opinions on Revenge of the Sith?
Matthew Guerruckey: Well, as I said in the beginning, this movie strikes me at an emotional level that makes it hard to really be objective, but I do see its flaws. All of them. What Scott said about the characters is right: there’s no one that we can root for in the same way that we can Luke Skywalker or Han Solo. But what Lawrence has been saying, pretty much throughout our discussion of the prequels, is right, too -- these guys aren’t heroes. Even Obi Wan Kenobi, stately old Jedi wizard, leaves his best friend to burn alive, instead of ending his suffering with one humming swipe of his lightsaber. And though we may hope to be as heroic as Luke Skywalker, too often we’re led astray as Anakin was, or walk away from our responsibilities the way that Obi Wan does. Revenge of the Sith is a film about regret, made by a filmmaker who had to be (though he would never admit it) filled with regret for the mess that he had made of his glorious franchise. It’s also, very likely, the last film that George Lucas will ever direct.
But though I can intellectualize Revenge of the Sith all I want, and I know how much I like it on a personal level, I would still find it very hard to recommend to anybody else. There’s just too much wrong with it. There’s too much about it that’s bad, or cheesy, or flat, in the way that good movies aren’t supposed to be bad, or cheesy, or flat. It’s kind of like Jesus Christ Superstar. Now, I love that movie, but when I recommend it to somebody else, I have to determine if they have the patience for something so over-the-top. Will they be able to embrace the garish 70’s trappings and dig into the unbelievably earnest core of the movie (while still loving the garish 70’s trappings, because they are awesome)? And with Revenge of the Sith, would they be able to look past the stilted line readings and janky editing to appreciate the rage, fear, and regret that permeates every frame of the film? Maybe not. But that won’t change a bit of what I like about it. It may be a flawed movie, but it’s pure Star Wars.
Lawrence, final thoughts?
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: Jesus Christ Superstar? I’m still learning new things about you, Mr. Guerruckey. My second favorite movie of all time after the original Star Wars is The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension. I understand that quirky, cult favorites are not for everyone. But, Revenge of the Sith isn’t one of these. It was a huge global hit. It received good reviews from critics. (It’s still “80% fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes.) Compared to most big box office movies, it may be a little idiosyncratic, but it’s not some underground oddity.
I don’t want to get too into this, but a lot of people are strangely embarrassed by the prequels. Superfans had this one idea of what “Star Wars” meant. The post-Return of the Jedi products--the spin-off novels, the video games, the Dark Horse comic books--all had a certain semi-serious tone and familiar flavor. (And that particular flavor was re-heated Empire Strikes Back.) This is what certain fans wanted out of Star Wars. So when George Lucas and the prequels took a decidedly different tone, these fans were embarrassed. That’s all. “Kids shouting ‘Whoopee!’ and robots saying ‘Roger, Roger,’ --that’s not Star Wars!,” they shouted. (Or typed furiously on message boards.) But, yes, these movies are Star Wars. You don’t have to like it, but so what. The prequels don’t define who you are. Their existence don’t make you any less cool.
The four George Lucas-directed Star Wars films are a strange bunch. They vary wildly in tone, craft, and cohesiveness. He made two spectacular ones--Star Wars, and Revenge of the Sith--one frustratingly failed one--The Phantom Menace--and one horrible one that exists only because a long time ago Lucas randomly decided to number his original Star Wars movie IV. Despite the variations, though, they all contain a consistent world view and consistent themes--nature vs. technology, orthodoxy vs individuality, duality and symbiosis, power and evil. They are all about the movies of George Lucas’ youth and the particular power cinema can have on our imagination. They’re not about the Yuuzhan Vong, or Mandalorian armor, or Prince Xizor or Joruus C’boath (or Kylo Ren.) They’re about so much more than the minutiae of a made up fantasy world. They are about the power of our own human imagination.
And that is why I love Star Wars.
Scott Waldyn: I don’t know what is or isn’t Star Wars. I don’t think there is a clear definition, nor do I think its founding creator(s) really know what Star Wars is. We have two trilogies now. In the original one, The Force is a mystical, binding energy throughout all of time and space. It is immeasurable, lurking within the ether of every living thing. In the other, newer trilogy, The Force is quantifiable and measured in number of Midi-chlorians. Though the Force-powered characters in the newer trilogy are more numerous and acrobatic than in the older trilogy, what once was mystical and magical now has a cold, “scientific” explanation. Force powers come from microscopic lifeforms; they are no longer from the realm of belief and imagination.
It would seem that the Star Wars universe is at odds with itself.
Revenge of the Sith is one of those newer trilogy films. It is part of this greater Star Wars franchise, one that encapsulates movies, books, cartoons, video games, and countless toys. I don’t think it’s a good film, but my opinion hardly matters. Star Wars is so vast and so populated with contributors and creators that we, as fans, have the ability to cherry pick “our Star Wars.”
Before Revenge of the Sith came out, tales of Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side were plentiful and varied. All of us fans had a narrative in our heads, one scrapped together from bits and pieces sprinkled throughout the Star Wars lore. All of us had our own tales of Darth Vader’s rise to power. All of us had our own dreams.
Recently, the new owners of Lucasfilm (Disney) threw out a Star Wars canon that had been around for decades. They repackaged these tales as “legends” and moved on, creating a whole new collection of stories. Many fans were upset by this, disenfranchised by one corporation’s decision to commandeer a collective universe. Why? Because this universe didn’t belong to any one entity. It belonged to us. All of us. Star Wars transcended the realm of cinema and into our deepest fantasies.
At the end of the day, Revenge of the Sith is one film in a vast abyss. Good or bad, it doesn’t matter. We can use it to fuel our dreams, or we can choose to ignore it. Episode III isn’t magical to me, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be magical for anyone else. For some of us, Midichlorians makes sense. For others, we prefer blind faith. The fact remains: we’re all fans breathing in the same dream world.
Donald McCarthy: I understand where some people are coming from in terms of the prequels (I think all of Scott’s comments are legitimate even when I disagree), but I think there is some truth to what Lawrence is saying about superfans being angry it wasn’t what they wanted it to be. I think this is also true of the new Star Trek films. They’re pretty flawed, especially Star Trek Into Darkness, but many of the complaints from superfans are bullshit. In general, I find that listening to the opinions of superfans of sci-fi franchises is a great way to wish for the apocalypse.
I’ve long been a fan of the prequels and, at times, I’ve wondered if I’d see their flaws as I got older; instead, I think I appreciate them a little more. Lucas has ambition in the prequels, more even than in the original film. Does all of it work? Hell no. But it is interesting and that’s saying a lot. Perhaps my love for them comes from the fact that there’s no real heroes in them. The hero of the original trilogy, Luke, is probably the most flawed of the heroic trio and I’m guessing that’s why he’s my favorite. You see, I like my Star Wars to be a mix of dark and adventurous, smart and action packed. The prequels aimed for this more than Return of the Jedi did and maybe even more than A New Hope.
If I had to write an academic paper on the saga, I think there’d be more to mine out of the prequels than the originals. Many find the originals more fun, and I won’t argue with that, but Lucas was bringing maturity and depth to his franchise even if it didn’t always work out in his favor.
Revenge of the Sith is my favorite Star Wars film. It’s one of my absolute favorite films (that said, I always find it hard to compare Star Wars films to other films -- in some ways the Star Wars films are in their own universe) and I think, years from now, it’s one I’ll be returning to with glee.
Lucas didn’t make a lot of people happy with the prequels (yet many still came out to see them), but I find that the group of us who do like them (hi, Lawrence!) are touched by them in a weird way. We see their flaws, but also their potential and moments of brilliance.
So, yeah, Revenge of the Sith, and the prequels in general, don’t work for a lot of people. They touch me, though, and that’s all I need. Thanks, George.
Our journey through the George Lucas Star Wars films may be done, but there's a new hope on the horizon! Our Star Wars series will continue in November, with a special Star Wars edition of Fact or Fiction, and in December we'll be back with a group discussion of Star Wars: The Force Awakens!