“The dark side is a pathway to many abilities; some considered to be unnatural.”
Let’s rewind ten years. I was fifteen years old. Had enjoyed the first two Star Wars prequels but knew, deep down, they weren’t perfect films. Despite the disappointment that had greeted those movies across the board, anticipation for Revenge of the Sith was pretty high. This was, after all, the episode on which the entire saga rested; the one we had all wanted to see coming into the prequels from the start. Anakin was going to become Darth Vader. The Jedi would be wiped out. The Republic somehow twisted into the Empire. This was the film in which it was all going to come together.
It opens three years after Attack of the Clones, in the midst of a space battle that looks better than anything its two predecessors had done. This film is still full of CGI and that undoubtedly causes issues (some CGI environments are so blindingly obvious that certain scenes lose any sense of realism or immersion), but here it isn’t quite as jarring or intrusive on the whole.
You immediately feel that Anakin has also matured from the whiny, tantrum-prone teen we knew previously, now more Obi-Wan’s equal as a Jedi. Hayden Christensen’s portrayal remains a point of contention, but he has improved, and much of his problem again stems from the material he’s given to work with here.
One of the biggest issues I have with Revenge of the Sith, in fact, is Anakin’s eventual turn to the dark side, which feels abrupt and slightly forced when it eventually happens. In the course of a few moments Anakin goes from saying “what have I done?” in horror, having prevented Mace Windu from killing Chancellor Palpatine, indirectly causing the Jedi Master’s death, to then kneeling and pledging himself to the Sith, agreeing with Darth Sidious that all Jedi should be eliminated.
No real person would act like this. Once again this film, like its predecessors, suffers greatly from a lack of organic development in its plot and character arcs; always coming across as if it’s heading towards some fixed destination and needing to tick off various checklist points on the way there.
Some sequences, including the first twenty minutes when Anakin and Obi-Wan are rescuing the Chancellor (which reportedly lasted over an hour before being edited down), feel excessively cut to the extent that you lose much of the emotional substance they otherwise could have had. George Lucas’ original version of this film was apparently four hours long, and that we ended up with a running time half this amount sums up, for me, the main problem. Lucas simply left himself with too much to get through in Revenge of the Sith, and seemingly wasn’t willing to stretch the film’s length to what it arguably needed to be to do itself justice.
Having said that, there are some surprises lurking here that automatically put this film above the other two Star Wars prequel movies. For example: the soundtrack – not so much in what it adds, but the times when it remains quiet. This is probably the quietest Star Wars film, with certain scenes completely absent of sound apart from the characters voices. The scene where Darth Sidious reveals himself to Anakin is most evident of this, as it begins without any sound, and the soundtrack subtly starts to build as Sidious builds up to revealing his true identity.
Speaking of Darth Sidious, Ian McDiarmid is once again excellent in this movie. Go back and watch the scene where Palpatine is talking to Anakin at the opera – probably the film’s best scene overall – and observe what he does with his inflections and subtle facial expressions. In that one scene you see him play his two characters at once; the gentle, kind Palpatine, looking out for Anakin as one would show concern for a nephew; under the facade, Darth Sidious, who shows the slightest hint of glee as he recounts the story of Darth Plagueis and remembers killing his former master.
Due to the film’s use of silence, its soundtrack is all the more effective when it is used. Seeing the clone troopers turn on their Jedi generals via Order 66 is especially poignant and harrowing thanks to John Williams’ score, while the iconic Duel of the Fates makes a return in the final climactic lightsaber battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan.
That final fight itself is a disappointment though. Yes it’s long and epic… but most of all, it’s over-choreographed to the point of absurdity. We don’t get the sense that this fight is real, or that there is any genuine emotion involved outside of dialogue and close-ups on the actors faces.
The dialogue is, I’m afraid, still unreasonably bad. It’s a slight improvement over the two films that preceded it, but George Lucas insists time and again on verbalising certain emotions and actions rather than trusting his actors to convey them.
Padme, for example, has to spell out for Anakin (and the audience) that “you’re breaking my heart” after hearing that he’s turned to the dark side and killed younglings. Honestly, watching the film back now, I almost feel sorry for Natalie Portman because of the numerous occasions she has dialogue fed to her that completely negates or undermines any acting on her part.
There’s another simple scene that exemplifies this issue, and it makes me want to punch the screen in frustration more than any other in this movie: it is when we see Darth Vader in his full body suit for the first time. He asks ‘where is Padme?’ and is informed that, in his anger, he killed her. Vader is angry and heartbroken. We see him crush the environment around him through the force; showing that his power is as strong as ever. And then, as if we hadn’t received the message, he shouts, “NOOOOOOOOOO!” The scene immediately becomes almost comical with that line.
But despite these misgivings, what I was saying earlier still stands: this is the best of the prequel trilogy. It is the darkest Star Wars film, and was the first to receive a PG-13 rating – after all, its plot deals with the Sith exterminating every Jedi; the Empire standing tall at the end, with Yoda and Obi-Wan, facing defeat, forced to go into exile. Within the first fifteen minutes Anakin, one of the film’s main protagonists, beheads his adversary Count Dooku in cold blood. Throughout the entire running time there’s an impending sense of unease, the likes of which Star Wars viewers hadn’t truly felt since The Empire Strikes Back twenty-five years earlier.
Of course many of this film’s fans, including myself, were not alive when the originals had their first theatrical run. I must admit, at fifteen years old, I considered Revenge of the Sith my favourite film of 2005. For me it more than delivered on its hype. With each subsequent viewing over the intervening years I’ve increasingly found little annoyances with the film that almost spoil my memory of enjoying it so much first time round. But I will say in its favour, even now, it’s hard to dwell on those flaws for too long – because it goes along at such a pace that you’re unable to. There are five separate lightsaber fights in this film, and while some of them really aren’t great at all (Obi-Wan against Grievous technically shouldn’t even count), this is what the essence of Star Wars was all about.
So where does it rank in the overall saga? For me it’s just a notch short of Return of the Jedi, as even though I prefer the tone of this one, the problems with its script and the fact that Lucas simply found himself with too much to get through in the plot almost cripple the finished product. It’s a good Star Wars movie – but could potentially have been a great one.
7 / 10