After two consecutive disappointments, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith was to be the film that finally showed what the prequels could be – it would be the culmination of all the fans’ expectations and finally show Anakin Skywalker’s fall from grace and descent into the darkness of Darth Vader. The film is widely regarded as the finest of the prequels, though it is as stilted and moronic as the other entries. The key distinction that separates it from its prequel brethren is that it’s darker and less appealing to small children. That, however, doesn’t mean that it’s a good movie. In fact, Revenge of the Sith is just a slight improvement upon Attack of the Clones and slightly worse than The Phantom Menace.
Attack of the Clones concluded with the clone army formed and engaged in war with the separatist forces, and Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and Padme (Natalie Portman) secretly marrying on Naboo after Anakin lost his arm fighting Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). Revenge of the Sith opens with a prolonged action scene – Anakin and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) pilot their way onto a starship where Count Dooku and General Grievous, the third villain introduced in the prequels, are keeping Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) captive. Frankly, Lucas is attempting to start out this final installment with a bang, but like much of the prequels it’s a weightless bang completely crafted in countless hard drives at Skywalker Ranch.
The opening fights – and there are many – are there to set up the conclusion of the Clone Wars and the eventual rise of the Galactic Empire. At the very least, Revenge of the Sith has established and introduced General Grievous before basically retreading much of Attack of the Clones. Obi-Wan must travel on his own and investigate the whereabouts of Grievous, while Anakin is left behind with Padme. You know, just like the last film. Only this time Anakin is tormented with visions of Padme’s death, not his mother. Suspecting his weakness, Palpatine tells Anakin a story that only fuels Anakin’s fears and lust for more power. Lacking prior context for someone’s fall to the Dark Side, Palpatine’s seduction of Anakin comes off more comical than menacing, like a B-movie actor’s attempts to be dramatically seductive towards a potential sexual conquest.
Throughout the prequels George Lucas lost the ability to craft interesting villains. At least he wastes little time introducing General Grievous, but Lucas still plays games when it comes to the revelation that Chancellor Palpatine is the Sith lord Darth Sidious. Lucas still acts as if most of the audience is unaware of the connection – it’s a case of trying to have it both ways as he opens the film with imagery that invokes thoughts of Return of the Jedi but shuts out new viewers to the characters villainy. This has real implications on the events of the film and explains why they’re so incredibly underwhelming.
Mainly, Revenge of the Sith hinges entirely on Anakin’s seduction to the dark side. This in and of itself raises a number of questions because we’ve never seen anyone fall to the dark side. All prior films have had this fateful moment occur off screen for all previous Sith. Even after the watching the film, is it one moment that leads one to fall towards the dark side or a culmination of moments? After all, Anakin commits mass murder in the previous the film, decapitates Count Dooku in the opening of this film, and then fully commits to the dark side when he attacks Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) and saves Palpatine’s life. If mass murder isn’t enough to fall to the dark side, why is attacking a Jedi Master any worse? In actuality, the film puts forth that Anakin’s egotism is much more a path towards evil than the actual atrocities that he’s perpetrated. Because according to this film, the mass murder of children wasn’t beyond the pale when it was the sand people, but massacring young Jedi is a bridge too far.
Following Revenge of the Sith, one wouldn’t be mistaken in thinking that George Lucas’ middle name is “Anticlimactic.” Not only is the audience pretty much in the dark about the mystical rules that govern when one has fallen to the Dark Side, but he also makes the eventual extermination of the Jedi something that is all but meaningless. The newly minted Emperor issues “Order 66.” What is Order 66? Well, it’s a pre-programmed order placed in the wiring of the clone troopers which causes them to shoot the Jedi in the back. Scene after scene, as John Williams’ overdramatic score blares, we’re presented with images of nameless Jedi – maybe not nameless if you own their toys, but for the purposes of the film we’ve never learned their names – shot down by what was once their allies. Lucas’ fascination with trade disputes and unimportant intergalactic civil wars deprive the viewers of better understanding of the Empire’s actual rise. Time and time again, Lucas finds the most underwhelming manner to present these revelations. Over the course of three films, Lucas never found a satisfactory way to convey any of these plot points.
The lightning rod for much of the scorn directed at the prequels lies squarely on the shoulders of Hayden Christensen. Like Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace, Christensen has become the easy target due to wooden line delivery and a screen presence that lacks anything in the way of charm, charisma, and human emotion. But Christensen has wrongly become the face of the films’ faults. Look, he’s bad in the movies, yes, but Lucas also wasted a number of phenomenal talents throughout the prequels. It’s a minor miracle that Ewan McGregor is able to sneak any charm into the films, and even then he’s saddled with a number of scenes that are just as wooden and lifeless as Christensen. The same could be said of Natalie Portman and Samuel L. Jackson, one of the most charismatic screen presences of recent memory. The biggest problem is Lucas’ wretched dialogue and inability to direct actors. No wonder he preferred to craft much of his work in computers.
Revenge of the Sith fails as a compelling story because the fate of its characters doesn’t lie in the balance. The climactic battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan is preordained – Obi-Wan wins leaving Anakin scarred and beaten, ready to wear the iconic suit of Darth Vader. We know the Emperor survives as does Yoda. We know that Padme will die in childbirth and Luke and Leia will be separated. That’s why Order 66 and the death of Mace Windu stick out as bad decisions because they were the sole moments where there’s actually a chance for suspense.
This is how the prequels end: with a whimper, not a bang. It shouldn’t be surprising, though. Starting with The Phantom Menace, George Lucas couldn’t ever put the best foot forward for this continuation of his space drama. The fact remains that Lucas’ prolonged absence from filmmaking (as a writer-director) led to two decades of a man hearing nothing but praises for every decision he ever made. When finally faced with criticism for the first time in ages, he allowed the dissent to dissuade his vision repeatedly. Attack of the Clones was obviously adjusted to the criticisms hurled towards The Phantom Menace, and that carried over to Revenge of the Sith in trying to make the installment darker than any Star Wars film that preceded it. The Star Wars prequels are nothing more than a cautionary tale about backwards writing. When we already know where the characters wind up, we need a thrilling ride to keep us interested. Revenge of the Sith, like the rest of the prequels, just can’t do that.