While May 4th is known the world over as Star Wars Day, many also choose to extend the celebrations of the course of three days, with one of them being the “Evil Star Wars Day” of May 6th (as in “Sith”). This year, I’ve been using the three Star Wars Days as the perfect excuse to go back over the Prequel Trilogy.
Released: 19 May 2005
Director: George Lucas
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
Original Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $113 million
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew Wood, and Frank Oz
Three years after Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones (ibid, 2002), the Jedi are leading the clone army of the Galactic Republic in a large-scale war against the Separatists. Following the death of Separatist leader Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor) is sent to eliminate the semi-cybernetic General Grievous (Wood) to put an end to the conflict. Meanwhile, though struggling with premonitions of his wife Padmé Amidala (Portman) dying in childbirth, Anakin Skywalker (Christensen) is tasked with spying on Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (McDiarmid); however, unbeknownst to all, Palpatine (secretly the Sith Lord Darth Sidious) is preparing a diabolical plot to destroy the Jedi!
It’s safe to say that, by 2005, the Prequel Trilogy had struggled to live up to the lofty expectations set by George Lucas’ original three Star Wars films; Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace (ibid, 1999) was a financial success, Attack of the Clones didn’t fare quite so well at the box office and both films were subjected to scathing criticism. Despite having jotted down the outline of Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side decades prior, Lucas struggled to properly formulate Revenge of the Sith’s script, which went through a number of changes even in post-production. As in Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith featured copious digital shots and effects; still, stars Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor bulked up and underwent extensive and rigorous training with stunt coordinator Nick Gillard for their climatic lightsaber duel. Despite a copy of the film leaking online, Revenge of the Sith fared marginally better than its predecessor at the box office with a $86.4 million gross. Critically, however, the film fared much better than the previous two films; generally considered to be the best of the Prequel Trilogy, critics praised the film’s bleak tone and more action-packed moments though the dialogue and acting still came under scrutiny.
As much as I enjoy Star Wars, I’ve always been more of a casual fan; since the Original Trilogy never seemed to be on television when I was a kid, my exposure was a bit limited compared to others who had VHS copies of the films. The Prequel Trilogy, and the release of the Special Editions, changed that and really helped to get me properly into Star Wars, but even then I was more about the videogames and Expanded Universe books. As a result, the first Star Wars film I saw at the cinema was actually Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith; I’m not sure why I didn’t see the first two episodes at the cinema but it may simply have been because I was too young to drive or get to our nearest cinema. In any case, despite how disappointing aspects of the Prequel Trilogy had been, my anticipation was high for Revenge of the Sith since it promised to finally show the emergence of the Galactic Empire, the downfall of the Jedi Order, and Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader.
Obi-Wan is now not only a member of the Jedi Council but also a battle-hardened General; his relationship with Anakin has progressed from teacher/student to equals and they work together to combat the Separatists. While Obi-Wan still despairs of Anakin’s more flamboyant and reckless piloting and battle strategies, the two are a far more polished team than in Attack of the Clones (thanks, presumably, to having been through many adventures in the Clone Wars) and even share a little playful banter with each other. This means that their rematch with Count Dooku goes far better this time as they work as a team, however cracks still exist and are formed in their relationship due to Obi-Wan’s distrust of Palpatine since the Chancellor has refused to give up his “emergency powers” and Anakin steadfastly defends the Chancellor, whom he views as a trusted ally and father-figure. Still, Obi-Wan has come to trust in his apprentice’s skills and abilities, as well as relying on the clone troopers under his command, specifically Commander Cody (Temuera Morrison). In both instances, he is ultimately betrayed but, even after seeing how far Anakin has fallen, he desperately pleads with the angry young Jedi to renounce the Dark Side to avoid battling Anakin, whom Obi-Wan views as a brother.
Anakin, of course, takes on a far larger role this time; now sporting longer hair, a nasty scar from battle, and having grown into a fully-fledged Jedi Knight, war has largely tempered his immaturity from the last film and made him a far more capable Jedi. However, he still remains conflicted; now haunted by visions of Padmé dying in childbirth and continuing to harbour a resentment towards Obi-Wan and the Jedi Council, to say nothing of how easily persuaded he is to execute Dooku, Anakin’s perception of the Jedi and the galaxy begins to quickly unravel as he desperately tries to keep those he cares about alive after failing to save his mother, Shmi (Pernilla August) in the last film. This desire is the decisive catalyst Palpatine needs to finally reveal his true nature to Anakin and coerce him into turning to the Dark Side; while this turn is very abrupt in the moment, a great deal of the film (and the entire Prequel Trilogy) is devoted to showing just how conflicted Anakin is, which honestly does help to somewhat justify this. In the end, he pledges himself to the Sith Lord in a frantic desire to keep Padmé alive and is clearly tormented at the hideous acts he commits to attain the power he needs to facilitate this.
Padmé has undergone quite the change from when we first met her in The Phantom Menace; having secretly married Anakin, she is carrying his children and growing increasingly concerned about the deceptive nature of their lives and love. Despite being pregnant, Padmé still remains an active member of the Galactic Senate but, distrustful of Palpatine’s intentions, colludes with notable names in the Senate and the Jedi to try and force the Chancellor to give up his powers, only to be left devastated when the oppressive Galactic Empire is voted into power “with thunderous applause”. Sensing that a far greater conflict is on the horizon, Padmé is equally terrified of the fact that both she and Anakin stand to lose everything if their marriage became public. So obsessed is Anakin with ensuring Padmé’s safety that she turns to Obi-Wan for comfort and support, which only enrages the newly-christened Darth Vader at the film’s finale. Consequently, despite being absolutely devoted to him, Padmé is so heartbroken at his turn to the Dark Side and everything Anakin has done that she literally cannot find the will to continue living.
From being a questionable addition in the first film to the creature responsible for Palpatine’s rise to power, Jar Jar Binks (Ahemd Best) is reduced to a mere cameo in this film, further making me question why he was even created in the first place. R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) return in supporting roles for Anakin and Padmé, respectively, but don’t really factor too much into the plot since Lucas’ focus is obviously more on depicting Anakin’s tumultuous final journey towards the Dark Side. Many of the Jedi we saw in minor supporting roles in the last two films return here primarily to die, though Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) finally gets some major screen time and a plays a pivotal role in the third act; suspicious of Anakin due to his relationship to Palpatine, Mace is ironically on the verge of trusting Anakin after he reveals Palpatine’s true identity as Darth Sidious and Mace even gets to have a decent lightsaber battle…only to be mutilated and blasted to his death in a scene that is played as dramatic but, thanks to Lucas’ awkward writing, comes across as a bit rushed and corny. However, despite many of the other Jedi not really being given names or prominence in the films, it’s still pretty tragic to see them being gunned down by their own troops or cut to pieces by Palpatine or Darth Vader, and to see strong and confident characters like Yoda (Oz) and Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) desperately fleeing from Palpatine and his clone troopers.
Count Dooku briefly returns for a rematch with Anakin and Obi-Wan but is quickly beheaded by Anakin in service of pushing him further to the Dark Side. Thus the film introduces another new antagonist in General Grievous, a largely cybernetic creature who seems to be the extreme far end of Darth Vader; half crippled by a debilitating cough and obvious pain, Grievous is both visually striking and a formidable foe thanks to wielding four lightsabers. However, I still can’t help but think that it would have made so much more narrative sense to have Darth Maul (Ray Park) survive The Phantom Menace, torment Obi-Wan in Dooku’s stead in Attack of the Clones, and finally be killed in Revenge of the Sith. Obviously, Palpatine also gets a lot more to do here; his wooing of Anakin is more prevalent and he finally drops his façade, literally transforming into a twisted, cackling, demonic figure as he ruthlessly cuts down Jedi and embraces his new role as the Emperor. Similar to Yoda, I’m not entirely convinced we really needed to see Palpatine swinging a lightsaber but it makes for a pretty intense conflict to see the extreme good (Yoda) clashing with the extreme evil (Palpatine) and failing due to underestimating the sheer overwhelming power Palpatine now wields. If nothing else, Revenge of the Sith is enjoyable for McDiarmid’s scenery-chewing, meme-worthy performance; while he may go a little too far into pantomime with his cackling demeanour, it’s a joy to watch and actually makes a lot of sense since he’s finally through hiding and delighting in showcasing his true power.
One of the best things about The Phantom Menace was George Williams’ incredible score; and this returns with a vengeance in Revenge of the Sith; not only is the “Imperial March” far more explicitly featured this time around, “Duel of the Fates” is evoked during Anakin and Obi-Wan’s climatic duel on Mustafar. Sadly, though, Lucas’ cringe-worthy dialogue still drags parts of the film down; however, for every scene where Anakin and Padmé bang on about love, there’s a chillingly ominous soliloquy from Palpatine to help get things back on track. Of course, CGI is still in high abundance but much better and less distracting than in Attack of the Clones, especially when showcasing massive space and ground battles; while green screen scenes involving live-action actors and some of the later creatures still look a little dodgy, it’s pretty impressive to see Grievous’ ship tilt and break apart in orbit before dramatically crashing to Coruscant.
Despite there being a full-scale war going on, there’s actually not too much large-scale conflict in the film since it opens towards the end of the Clone Wars. Things start off with a bang to depict a massive space battle in the atmosphere of Coruscant and through to Anakin and Obi-Wan’s campaign onto Grievous’ ship, which is a fantastically realised sequence that really helps shows the scale and stakes of the conflict. It was great to finally see Kashyyyk but it also feels like this battle could’ve happened anywhere and was put in simply to shoe-horn a glorified cameo from Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) into the film. In addition to seeing the founding members of the future Rebellion coming together in defiance of Palpatine’s new Empire, we also get see a wide variety of interesting locations (some of which are free from Lucas’ trademark green screens) but we don’t really dwell on them too much since they’re just there to show the scale of the conflict. Consequently, Mustafar makes an immediate impression; Obi-Wan and Anakin battle on a planet that’s basically an active volcano and, since it basically resembles hell, this provides the perfect chaotic background for the final duel of the film.
Obviously, the story of Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side and the fall of the Jedi is a pivotal aspect of the film; terrified of losing Padmé, Anakin refuses to turn to even Obi-Wan for help or to listen to reason, and falls under Palpatine’s lure since the Chancellor knows exactly the right words to say to stoke Anakin’s ego and fears. Anakin is outraged not only when Mace Windu appoints him a seat on the Jedi Council but denies him the rank of Jedi Master but also when Obi-Wan surreptitiously asks Anakin to spy on Palpatine. Still, when Palpatine reveals himself to Anakin, the young Jedi’s first instinct is to arrest (or kill) the Chancellor and he even shares this revelation with Mace Windu is but ultimately driven to turn against the Jedi in order to attain the power he needs to ensure Padmé’s survival. Christened Darth Vader, Anakin immediately assassinates not just the Separatist heads and disables their droid army, he also goes on a killing spree on Coruscant, slaughtering every man, woman, and child in the Jedi Temple. Though this clearly brings him no pleasure, he is left with no choice but to do as Palpatine commands and desperately tries to justify his actions as bringing order to the galaxy.
Of course, the main highlight of the film is the long-awaited battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin; thanks to seeing Obi-Wan match and overcome the multi-armed General Grievous earlier in the film, Anakin’s sheer power and skill are all the more impressive since he wields just the one lightsaber and pushes Obi-Wan to the edge throughout the battle. Unlike similar battles in the other Star Wars films, this dramatic and aggressive conflict is juxtaposed not by a space battle but by Yoda’s equally intense fight against Palpatine; however, this doesn’t detract from the emotion and intensity of this climatic conflict. Beginning on stable ground and crossing raging lava and explosive outbursts of the chaotic planet, Anakin and Obi-Wan are almost entirely evenly matched; while Anakin attacks with unbridled rage, finally giving in to all of his hatred and resentment towards his mentor, Obi-Wan matches him blow for blow despite being torn at having been forced into the conflict. Ultimately, Anakin’s arrogance in his powers is his downfall and, despite Darth Maul proving in The Phantom Menace that having the high ground doesn’t ensure victory, he is left a crippled, smouldering husk of a man with a few swings of Obi-Wan’s lightsaber. Heartbroken, but unable to deliver the killing blow, Obi-Wan leaves his former apprentice to die and, surely, Anakin would have died had it not been for his intense hatred and the timely intervention of Palpatine. As Padmé breathes her last, the Darth Vader we all know and love lumbers to life with an ungainly step and the booming baritone of James Earl Jones and Anakin is left devastated at having lost everything and with no choice but to remain at Palpatine’s side as the Empire consolidates its grip and few remaining Jedi go into hiding to await a new hope.
It’s pretty clear to me that George Lucas put everything he had into Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (even if his dialogue still desperately needs work); by its very nature, the film is the bleakest and grimmest of perhaps the entire saga and, while many elements remain unsatisfying (Anakin’s turn is quite abrupt and his Sith name seems to just be plucked out of thin air), it’s easily the strongest of the Prequel Trilogy. Seeing Palpatine finally step out of the shadows and shroud himself in the dark cloak of the Emperor, literally transforming into his more familiar, gnarled form is as haunting as his cackling, aggressive skills with a lightsaber. Seeing Anakin turn on his friends and go on a killing spree remains an emotional and uncomfortable watch since he is clearly tormented at having to kill children and there’s a definite sense that he has been left with no choice but to fully commit to his dark path, which ironically brings him only further pain. Seeing Yoda distraught by failure and Obi-Wan’s despair at having not only witnessed Anakin’s actions but also being forced to battle him to the death goes a long way to adding to the burden of guilt he’s clearly carrying some twenty years later and the entire Order 66 sequence makes for some of the most moving scenes in the entire franchise. Ultimately, it’s a shame that the entire Prequel Trilogy couldn’t have been this good but, as awkward as Lucas’ jump was, he definitely stuck the landing here to deliver a thoroughly satisfying and tragic finale.
What are your thoughts on Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith? Did you find it to be a satisfying conclusion to the Prequel Trilogy and how would you rank it against other films in the Star Wars saga? What did you think to the execution of Anakin’s final turn to the Dark Side; did you think it was too rushed and do you feel his actions could ever truly be redeemed? What did you think to Palpatine’s true nature being revealed and the slaughtering of the Jedi? Do you think Obi-Wan should have done a more thorough job in finishing Anakin off? Do you think Lucas made the right decision in killing Padmé’ or were you expecting her to survive to be with, at least, her daughter? Whatever you think, drop a comment below and let me know and thanks for joining me in revisiting the Prequel Trilogy over the last three days.