Whenever the subject of Revenge of the Sith comes up, I am always ready with the opinion that whatever its faults, whatever its rewards, this is not a fun movie. I actually mean this as a compliment. It would have been so easy for George Lucas to take the darkest chapter in the Star Wars saga and lighten things up so they wouldn’t seem so harsh, but he didn’t. This is a dark, painfully sad, unyielding melodrama about the hard fall of a very good person whose selfish personal pursuits plunge the galaxy (as well as his own humanity) into darkness. There is no timidity to anything that Lucas presents here. That doesn’t make it a great film, it still suffers from the same wooden dialogue that plagued Attack of the Clones but by comparison, it slightly improves.
The role of the Jedi is a bit confusing. The story take place as the Clone Wars are coming to an end and, for whatever reason, the Jedi are now given a top position in the Republic’s new standing army. Why? I’m not exactly sure, and the movie doesn’t offer an explanation. Throughout this series they’ve gone from a religious sect, to a diplomatic core, to a paramilitary organization and now they’re leading the whole dang shootin’ match? I’m not sure I get it.
This might have been the cause for public derision if the movie had bothered to mention it. Palpatine has all the Jedi wiped out and then returns to the Senate to claim that the Jedi were trying to take over. With that, all apparently turn their allegiance to the new Emperor because, well, he’s the new Emperor. What I think the movie is missing is an indication that the Jedi were becoming the stuff of public derision. What was the public opinion? Was there some mistrust in the Senate? Why, after the Jedi aided the army in The Clone Wars, are people so willing to except that the Jedi were up to no good? I don’t know, maybe it was in the novelization.
There are no new force powers here save for what we learn about the Sith. This is the only time we get to see Palpatine cut loose. I’m speaking, of course, of the office scene in which the Jedi come to arrest Palpatine for high treason. What he can do physically is mindblowing. We can imagine that Vader might have seen it and it fueled his desire for more power. It also might have impressed General Grievous, an imposing-looking meatbag held together by spare parts who carries the weapons and trappings of a Sith but is not, in fact, a Sith. This is the first time in the series that we see anyone who carries lightsabers not because they are Sith or Jedi. Grievous is an interesting precursor to Vader in that both carry broken bodies inside a man-made container. He’s also the puppet in Palpatine’s ultimate plan.
The great hat trick in all of The Emperor’s political machinations comes to a head as soon as Anakin turns to The Dark Side, wherein he whips out Order 66, a keyword implant that orders all of the clone troopers to assassinate the Jedi. I realize that Revenge of the Sith is ostensibly Anakin’s story, but for me, the center of this movie is really Palpatine. Ian McDiarmid gives a brilliant performance here, playing a man who has no subtlety, no conflicts. We see in him the great snake charmer that lies at the core of the Sith. Like Hitler, Palpatine doesn’t overthrow the government to gain power, he erodes the government from within, biding his time. He doesn’t remove his enemies over time but with one crushing blow. He uses the weakness of his young protégé to pull him to his side. It is a clever bit of manipulation that stands for all tyrants, all great manipulators.
That brings me to the single greatest scene in the entire trilogy, the moment when Palpatine has a heart to heart with Anakin. Seated at the Opera, he tries to extol the virtues of the dark side, but senses that this approach isn’t working. He takes a breath and then relays the story of Darth Plaegus The Wise, a Sith Lord who figured out how to manipulate Midi-chlorians to create life and to keep those around him from death. What is happening here is something completely new to the Star Wars saga. This is the first and only time that the mythology of Star Wars is given a mythology within the mythology. This is something that happens all the time in stories like The Lord of the Rings and Dune and Harry Potter, in which the characters themselves have myths and legends and stories that they tell each other. Stories that are passed on from generation to generation that change over time. I didn’t realize it until I saw this movie, but this is the first time that the movies give us that kind of deeper level, that the Star Wars universe not only has a rich history but it also has it’s heroes and legends as well.
Many, including myself, regard this as the best of the prequels because this is where the meat of the story can be found. The conflicts come to a boil and the story of the decimation of Anakin’s soul carries a lot of weight. What he has to deal with is the foreknowledge that Padme will die and he basically sells out the entire galaxy to attain a power that he thinks will stop it from happening. I like the idea of Lucas borrowing elements of Faust – the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil to keep his loved ones from dying of the plague – and wraps those themes around Anakin’s story.
Plus, it’s also refreshing to see the Hellish world of the Sith. In the original we saw the Sith but only from the outside, only from Luke’s point of view. Here we get an inside look at how the relationship works between master and apprentice. We get to see the Sith Lord at the peak of his power and we understand what the Jedi are up against. It is interesting, and a little scary, how seductive the dark side can be when the apprentice is willing to submit.
Yet, as much as I give this movie credit, I must admit that it is problematic. It still suffers under the weight of Lucas’ impulses. It still suffers from his dusty, boilerplate dialogue (the exchanges between Anakin and Padme are cause to envy the deaf). It suffers from some structural problems, unnecessary characters, and an ending that basically paints itself into a corner. There are two lightsaber battles going on between four people that we know are all going to survive. As epic as they are, the drama of those two battles are undercut by the fact that we know that all of the participants are going to survive. That doesn’t make them unwatchable, but knowing the destination makes those scenes feel kind of long.
And yet, I admire Lucas’ tenacity. This isn’t the first or second Star Wars movie that I run to. I have to make it part of the journey, working my way through the series in order to fully appreciate it. It’s not a perfect movie, it’s not a great movie, but I can admire the artistry and the drama. I think this is the prequel movie that came closest to really hitting the mark.