Cast : Hayden Christensen, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L Jackson, Frank Oz, Christopher Lee, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Jimmy Smits, Peter Mayhew, Ahmed Best, Silas Carson, Joel Edgerton, Bonnie Piesse, Temuera Morrison.
Synopsis: Anakin Skywalker turns to the dark side, Padme gives birth to Luke & Leia, and Obia Wan and Yoda trot off to live in exile. Death and destruction at almost every turn.
Dark, mesmerising and powerful, the last half of George Lucas’s final instalment of his massive Star Wars saga is a brilliant dramatic piece of filmmaking. The only shame of it is that the film runs nigh on two and a half hours, and by that stage, any semblance of caring about it is gone. That’s if you’ve tuned in to watch any of it. More action packed than the previous two prequel films combined, Revenge of the Sith is a stronger, more powerful filmmaking effort from the constantly lambasted Lucas. Unlike, however, The Phantom Menace, or even the catastrophically awful Attack Of The Clones, Revenge Of The Sith has at least some semblance of character development and narrative trajectory.
The Clone Wars have been raging for a number of years, since the events shown in Attack Of The Clones. As the film opens, we learn that Senator Palpatine (whom anybody ofae with the Star Wars universe will know is going to become the dastardly Emperor shown in Empire and Return of The Jedi) has been kidnapped by a rogue robotic soldier, and that Obi Wan and Anakin are on a mission to rescue him. Along with R2D2, Obi Wan (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen) eventually crash the kidnappers’ ship on Coruscant, the most populated planet in the Universe, and the seat of power for the Republic. During the course of the film, we learn that Anakin has been taken for guidance by the powerful Senator, who secretly is moving to discredit the Republic and assume total power for himself: something the Jedi are initially unwilling to believe, but slowly come to accept. The army of clones, introduced in Attack, are turned to the destruction of the Jedi by Palpatine, who reveals himself to be a Dark Lord of the Sith to Anakin, who is initially horrified. Slowly, though, Anakin is brainwashed into thinking that Palpatine’s actions, such as the disbanding of the Republic and the annihilation of the Jedi order, are the right thing to do, and eventually swears loyalty to the Sith order, and to Palpatine, who takes the nome de plume Darth Sidious.
Oh, and apparently Padme (Natalie Portman) has to give birth to Anakin’s offspring.
The themes Lucas had to explore in this film are particularly dark, a lot darker than previous instalments, mainly due to the fall of one-time good guy Anakin into the guise of Darth Vader. While not shying away from the fact that Anakin would eventually become the evil monster we see in A New Hope and it’s sequels, it’s his exploration of how Anakin becomes the Sith Lord that’s most appealing to us as viewers. The problem is, the story of Anakin’s fall from grace is bloated beyond what Lucas is capable of producing as a coherent storyline, and his tete-a-tete with Obi Wan over the lava-coated surface of Mustafar, a planet far from civilisation, is strangely devoid of the emotional weight required of such a pivotal moment in the franchise. The descent of Anakin to the Dark Side, to become Darth Vader, is one of the key elements of the series, and perhaps the single greatest thing fan’s had waited a lifetime to witness. And behold, we have Anakin in the Vader suit. But the wait is an interminable one. Convoluted scenes on distant worlds between Obi-Wan and alien creatures of little imagination and value string this film out to inordinately attention-deficient lengths. And once again, we must endure a badly scripted, badly acted “love” affair between Anakin and Padme run it’s course, the hamfisted dialogue no match for Portman and Christensen’s awesome acting talent (guffaw).
There are plenty of problems with Revenge Of The Sith as a whole, beginning with the fact that unfortunately, we know what the outcome of the film will be. Lucas’ did himself no favours by deciding to film the back-story for the original Star Wars trilogy, telling the story of how Vader became Vader, how Luke and Leia were separated at birth, why Yoda lives in a swamp and why Obi-Wan lives in a desert near Luke’s place. By the end of this film, these events must take place to bring closure to the saga. It’s inevitable. So we know that somehow, Anakin turns bad, and puts on the famous black suit. We know that Obi-Wan takes baby Luke Skywalker to his uncles place on Tatooine, while sister Leia goes to become royalty on Alderaan. It’s not so much the when, but the how, that we are interested in. But knowing the eventual outcome of the film means that some of the tension, some of the mystery of the film, is lost.
The dialogue, a constant thorn in Lucas’ side as a filmmaker, has been cleaned up a little this time, is less wooden than previous instalments: however, it’s still hopelessly formulaic and generic. Yoda and Obi-Wan speak like robots, with about as much emotional weight as a pillow full of feathers. C3PO is reduced to the comedy relief status that he enjoyed in the original trilogy, although his impact is lessened somewhat by the darker, more mature themes on offer here. Anakin’s fall from grace, to a darker, more evil destiny, is truly heart-rending, although part of me felt that he just needed a good slap to set him right. I felt the film lacked the real dramatic punch required to get Anakin to turn so easily to the side of bad, the plot is so convoluted and almost directionless in it’s style, its less of Anakin as a character turning bad, and more about the story requiring him to turn bad. I think the fact that Lucas had shoehorned himself into a storytelling corner, which made the dramatic impetus of the film less powerful than it ought to have been. Anakin and Padme’s love, which comes across more like a low-budget soap-opera romantic entanglement than a full blown “we really love each other” heart-beating emotional relationship, is generic and clichéd, filled with sappy, doe-eyed love talk that reverberates as half-hearted and wooden. There’s not an ounce of chemistry between Portman and Christensen, something that is absolutely required to exist if the audience is going to buy into their plight. Honestly, this is perhaps the crux of the entire prequel trilogy’s problem: we don’t buy that Anakin and Padme are in love, after all, it’s the fact that Padme becomes afraid of him that finally tips the young Jedi over the edge. This should have been heart-breaking to watch, as the man she loves turns to evil, but instead, its a pretty passionless affair that is merely a formality to endure before the black suit and raspy breathing comes out.
The genuine star of this film is not one of the big-name actors, either. Sam Jackson, Christensen and Portman are diabolically outclassed by British actor Ian McDiarmid, as Senator Palpatine. McDiarmid owns this film, makes the role his own and pours like what seems to be his very soul into playing the evil, scheming senator that eventually claims the universe as his own. His transition between the calmly patient Palpatine and the demonic, vicious Darth Sidious is very well done, McDiarmid obviously relishing the fact that he’s playing the words ultimate Bad Guy. And he’s given free reign by Lucas, even a lightsabre fight or two as well, and it’s his portrayal here that solidifies him as one of the great underrated character actors of all time.
Before you go thinking that the film cannot possibly be that good (which, honestly, it gets to be by the start of the second hour) let me tell you: Revenge Of The Sith has the same elements of bad storytelling than the previous two prequels contained. Effects, Mr Lucas, do not a story make. They should help you tell the story, but they shouldn’t be the story. I’ve already gone over this in my previous article on Attack Of The Clones, so I won’t bother repeating myself here, but suffice to say that Revenge suffers from the same reliance on digital trickery to be a part of the story, rather than utilising the effects to help sell the story to an audience. It’s like being force-fed (no pun intended).
Where Lucas appeared to learn from his mistakes with Phantom and Attack is minimised substantially here. Jar Jar Binks, the flogging-horse for Star Wars fans, and quite possibly one of the most despised cinematic creations in history, is reduced to a single walk-on part with no dialogue, something much debated over in internet forums at the time: most thought it was still too much Jar Jar for a film to bear. The political machinations of the story were limited a lot more than previous films, although since Lucas had set the prequels up as an overly political saga anyway, there was little he could do to change the tone of the trilogy. But the overly talky, and clunky, dialogue about Federations and embargoes and suchlike between warring factions of the Republic are reduced enough to allow the characters to shine more than the narrative, which allows us to develop a somewhat tentative enjoyment from the actions of the performers.
The problem is, though, that by the time this story gets moving to it’s climax, it’s too late to save the film from being mired in it’s own cleverness and self-indulgent aggrandising. Lucas is too clever for his own good, trying to milk some emotional weight from the story when there clearly isn’t any. And he comes undone in doing so. Revenge tries to be good, and almost deserves a little time and respect for attempting to tell a story well, but ultimately, there’s too much going on, and too little to care about, for us to really bother. All we want are lightsabre fights (which we get) and Jedi coolness. Oh, and the first canonical appearance of Darth Vader, something fans have been waiting for since 1977. I admit, I did enjoy Revenge Of The Sith in the cinema the first time round, but when you sit down and re-watch it to try analysing the film from a critical standpoint, you see it doesn’t hold up under much scrutiny. Still, for the fact that we finally get to the meat of the story told in the prequels, that moment where Anakin turns to the Dark Side, it’s worth a little time.
Critical Conclusion: Was It All Worth It?
So, was it worth Lucas’ while to make the three prequel films, in order to “complete” his massive saga? Financially, no doubt it was, since all three films made squillions of dollars and remain embedded in the top twenty grossing films of all time. For the fans, though, I think there can be no doubt that (in paraphrasing from Jurassic Park) just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. The ability to finally put his vision on-screen in a way he wanted probably didn’t justify the effective prostitution of the love and critical endearment of his previous works, and in the end, severely undoes all the good work he did with the original trilogy. While the story is now “complete”, in effect, he’s taken a great trilogy and bloated it out with semi-fanciful marketing pap, gouging the fanbase for loyalty and asking the modern audience to believe that Natalie Portman would give birth to twins while still looking about ten years old, after bagging a boy a third her age. Like Leia kissing Luke, the age gap between Padme and Anakin in The Phantom Menace just adds to the ethically uncomfortable plot point when they fall in love in Attack of The Clones.
I don’t think we needed to see three films about Anakin Skywalker. Unfortunately, the padding in Phantom Menace spilled over to Attack, which effectively ruined the power of Revenge quite a lot. I feel that the three films coule quite easily have been made as one film, telling the rise and fall of Anakin well without resorting to stupid Midichlorians or whatnot: the whole Anakin as a kid story is never going to be as interesting as him as a man. The diabolical reduction of Christopher Lee to bit-part player is a criminal act in itself, and his treatment in Revenge is something to be ashamed of, Mr Lucas. At least if you’re going to kill your character off, give him the send-off he deserves. Lucas did what Peter Jackson wisely opted out of: having your film two villain die in the opening minutes of the third, and thus, lessen his overall impact. Those who know the backstory of Lord of The Rings will understand.
Star Wars would have remained a lot better off without the prequel trilogy, given that so much fan speculation about the history of the established characters had in effect built up such a reverence and love of the story that no amount of digital storytelling was ever going to do it justice. To me, the Prequels remain more a clever marketing strategy to boost the coffers of Lucasfilm, than to offer anything new to the fans and general public.