The Phantom Greatness of Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith

Revenge of the Sith Death Star

Despite the persistent rumors to the contrary, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith is a movie that exists. In fact, it’s part of a trilogy of movies that exists. It was also generally popular with critics when it premiered (80% RT score), only slightly less well-liked among fans (65% audience RT score) and it made a bank vault full of money ($848m). It also kept hope alive for a three-decade-old franchise, introduced a new generation of fans to a universe of characters, and served as a foundation for a successful television show and a set of new installments that the internet cannot shut up about.

Ten years ago today, audiences got to hear Obi-Wan Kenobi scream-cry, “You were the chosen one!” in disbelief that his pupil had helped destroy the very thing he was supposed to save. The phrase evolved into a reflexive criticism on creator George Lucas for some fans who were bereft at the “just okay” status of Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Within a short period of time, decently fun action adventure movies (okay, except Phantom Menace) were transformed into things to be shunned, and Lucas was made the villain of the story he created.

He tinkered too much, relied too heavily on CGI, invented Jar Jar Binks. However, on this auspicious anniversary, staring down the barrel of Episode VII: The Force Awakens, I rewatched Revenge of the Sith to find that there was one major thing keeping it from greatness, and it wasn’t (exactly) Lucas.

Let’s start there. Watching RotS in 2015, it seems clear that Lucas attacked it with the same pulpy enthusiasm for old school serials that got him into the Star Wars business in the first place. It’s an epic space soap opera where a Wookie literally does the Tarzan yell while swinging onto a laser-blasting space ship.

If your jaw fell to the floor at the sheer length and scale of the opening action sequences in Age of Ultron and Fury Road, consider that a decade ago RotS’s opening included a massive space battle between all classes of ship, dog fighting, crashing landing in a docking bay, dueling the major villain from the last movie (Count Dooku), smashing droids and burning them with gasoline, charging through a sinking (in space?) vessel, combating an insane organic robot Supreme Commander (General Grievous), and then crash landing half of a giant transporter ship into a nearby planet. All of that lasts 24 minutes.

Oddly enough, the overuse of CGI is either to blame for or slightly vindicated by a slew of movies since 2005 which have done far worse jobs with the crutch. For a ten-year-old film, RotS still looks mostly fantastic. What doesn’t look pristine is caused by a cartoonish physics engine – another remnant of the broad style Lucas was going for and the technology at the time. This film is more indebted to the venerated history of Vaudevillians slipping on banana peels than maybe it should be, and it’s arguable that Lucas shouldn’t have maintained the grand silliness that also marked sequences in the original trilogy. Maybe the prequels needed to evolve, but one of the major complaints about the prequels is obscured after watching the last ten years of blockbusters.

Patton Oswalt has a famous bit where he bashes the prequels, saying that if he had a time machine, he’d go back to the early 90s to kill George Lucas (instead of stopping the Kennedy assassination). He likens the origin of Darth Vader to Jon Voight’s ball sack (the origin of Angelina Jolie) and proclaims loudly and hilariously that seeing where a beloved thing comes from isn’t a great idea.

It’s the kind of bit I laughed and nodded my head along with, but I disagreed with the sentiment as soon as I thought about it for more than ten seconds. I understand it as a response to frustration and the less-then-stellar production, but Darth Vader is exactly the kind of character who could be beautifully dissected in an origin story. He’s dynamic and brutal, but he’s not wholly evil. He’s also not an enigma meant never to be solved. He’s a fully realized figure in the original films, and the question of what made him the way he is could be a fascinating, fulfilling one.

Here’s where we get to the main problem of Revenge of the Sith: the movie that came before it.

Despite being light-years better than the slog of Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones failed to set up a believable romance between Anakin and Padme, and that sank RotS before it could even start sailing.

Yes, the dialogue in RotS is flat, but Star Wars has a storied history of terrible lines. People say exactly what they’re going to do (“I’m Luke Skywalker! I’m here to rescue you!”), they repeat plans, they state the obvious, they spray on some cheese. Yes, the love story in RotS is the bedrock for why Anakin goes crazy, and it’s more than a little juvenile, but it also sets up Anakin as an emotionally immature fool ready to be lured by dark power. Yes, Hayden Christensen is a near-comatose actor, but I have no rebuttal for that one.

He’s a struggle to watch. Better actors could have made Lucas’ numbing dialogue work, and a more actor-centric director could have pulled out better performances. It’s a one-two punch that sets up the movie to stumble. Imagine for a second that you believed with your whole heart in the romance between Anakin and Padme from Attack of the Clones. Imagine that they’re crappy CGI apple-slicing giggle-fests were replaced by non-twee moments where two human-like people grow to appreciate and care for each other in uncertain times.

In this hypothetical situation, at the very least RotS has a chance to succeed, and the very most, every element of it works better because we don’t have to do the heavy lifting of believability for two characters who share zero chemistry.

The main point is that everything could have stayed the same, and RotS would have been better.

At the same time, what RotS does with Anakin is gorgeous. His downfall is aggravatingly consistent. The story doesn’t shove him into darkness, but instead allows us to watch his descent, powerless to stop it despite knowing what the endgame will be. That’s a tough narrative position to be in considering the transformative power of catharsis. It’s genuinely difficult to watch Anakin make the wrong decision at every turn, solely because he had a vision of a destiny he wants to protect his wife from. By itself, it’s incredibly noble.

Revenge of the Sith

It also smartly sets up Anakin as the polar opposite of what Obi-Wan eventually becomes. The Jedi Council is a cult, which is glossed over by all the swash-buckling and wacky alien adventuring. They’re warrior ascetics with a strange relationship to the state and the regulation military. They have a temple. They eschew normalcy. They wear robes. Anakin is pulled in every direction, but his sympathy rests with his own ego.

Palpatine is a perfect Hitler, and Anakin is a moron. A true idiot. An even stupider Harry Potter.

Even with that veneer, it’s an interesting exploration of tearing down a hero by using his heroic nature against him. Anakin’s tragic flaw is wanting to save people. In fact, all the personal/political maneuvering might not matter at all in this story, because Palpatine has the trump card of enticing Anakin to the dark side by promising him protective powers. Even if the Jedi had coddled him and fed his ego every scrap of praise it needed, Palpatine still could have come out looking like the better bet. Anakin may not have been as pliable, but he would have relented in order to save the woman he loves.

On that front, the story is complicated because their love is stupid. It’s a child’s love, and we know it, and she probably knows it, but he doesn’t seem to. He’s a high schooler writing his crush’s name in his locker, except he’s married, has babies on the way and can kill someone with his mind.

Because of that youthful understanding of love, he sees his relationship in binary. He wants to save her because he loves her, but that love doesn’t extend to communicating with her, or considering her needs or participating in a true partnership. He’s the serial killer delivering a collection of ears to his beloved, confused when she doesn’t swoon.

It’s easy to mock him as being an Emo Darth Vader, but in spite of a wooden performance and some blunt dialogue, Skywalker’s journey to darkness is patiently built to make the culmination of his mental and physical destruction feel necessary. Against all odds, it’s effective. By the end, he’s given up all of his principles, become a child murderer and pledged allegiance to a dangerous man, all to protect a woman who rebukes him specifically for doing those things. It’s irony that Sophocles would applaud, and it finds itself at home in its soap operatic surroundings.

So, somehow, the final hour is fantastically tense. It builds on our natural fear of the inevitable without fumbling that anticipation or firing too early. When Yoda and Obi-Wan finally understand that it’s “The Chosen One” who’s betrayed them, Obi-Wan’s becomes the dominant perspective, and he becomes a stand-in for the audience. We watched every slight, every perceived insult that sent Anakin into Palpatine’s wrinkled arms, and yet it’s still difficult to believe how evil this dumb kid is becoming.

When Obi-Wan – in the heat of battle on a volcanic planet – yells his profound confusion to the heavens, the cosmic size of the tragedy finally comes into focus. We, as an audience, so often place our faith in the Chosen One (Neo entering The Matrix, Dorthy heading to Oz), and Lucas has flipped that on its head to inform us that the prophesy that we and Obi-Wan believed in was nonsense. It’s probably the only popcorn movie worth nearly a billion (in ticket sales alone) where the bad guys win decisively, and the good guys run off to a swamp planet to hide.

All of this to say that it’s a little silly we pretend that the prequels don’t exist. Plus, General Grievous is totally rad.