Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Saturday, October 31, 2015 at 06:58AM
Ian Simmons in Star Wars Episode 3/Revenge of the Sith [2005]

The Asterisk Field

I wonder if Star Wars: The Force Awakens was ever intended to get off the ground. For decades, diehard fans clamored for George Lucas’ rumored nine-film series, but by the third entry in his “Prequel Trilogy”, the best anyone could have hoped for was a tidy (or at least not embarrassing) lead-in to 1977’s Episode IV: A New Hope. Sure, some dug the prequels, and they were financially viable, but by mid-summer 2005, few of us wanted anything more from Lucas than to leave our beloved space-opera alone. Cap it at six, George, we prayed. For the love of God, cap it at six. After a decade, a sale to Disney, and a baton-passing to J.J. Abrams, the galaxy sighed in collective semi-relief that at least someone not responsible for creating and promoting Jar Jar Binks would take the reins. We’ll soon find out if the galaxy far, far away truly belongs in the past.

Looking back on the prequels has been enlightening.* Episodes I and II are worse than I remember. Episode III is much better. It’s still not a good movie—excepting any consideration beyond the technical—but it feels as though Lucas had gotten a lot of nonsense out of system, and was finally ready to give fans the story they’d waited nearly thirty years to see: the transformation of allegedly noble Jedi Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) into galactic mob enforcer Darth Vader (voiced ever so briefly here by James Earl Jones). Even with the juvenile comedy, chemistry-free soap-romance, and cruelly dense political yammering of the first two films, getting Vader’s origin story right should've been as sure a lock as an eastern sunrise.

And it is, mostly. Revenge of the Sith boasts the PT’s breeziest, most emotionally satisfying storytelling, thanks, in large part, to Lucas’ sidelining of relationships that don’t work: Anakin and secret wife Padmé (Natalie Portman); and focusing on those that do: Anakin and his frustrated teacher, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), and Anakin and Emperor-in-waiting Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). The droid comedy, the Jar Jar comedy, the "Look-fanboys-it's-kinda-Boba-Fett" patronizing--they're all but absent here, leaving room for an awkward but effective drama about a guy trying to save his friend from the cold, creepy clutches of a power-mad politician.

Lucas makes strides to regain our trust in his judgment by making Anakin brood, rather than whine. Christensen has a wonderfully menacing look, maturing from Jake Lloyd's blonde, rambunctious brat into a dark-haired, glowering thug who just wants to chill with his pregnant wife--and for the galaxy to bend to his will so he doesn't have to think about work on the weekends. McGregor steps to the fore, as Obi-Wan traverses star systems in pursuit of a conspiracy to bring down the Republic from within. Palpatine, having risen to power in the last film, oversees a million-strong army of clone troopers who hunt down "dangerous" separatists. He eventually confides in Anakin that he’s the last of the anti-Jedi Sith Lords, but still a decent guy.

Unfortunately, Anakin Skywalker, for all his space-piloting and lightsaber prowess, is really soft in the head. At the mere suggestion that Padmé might need to someday be brought back from the dead (and guess who just happens to have the key to immortality tucked away in his flowing Capitol robes?), he joins the Dark Side and leads the slaughter of friends, children, and every Jedi on the galactic beat. One could argue that the Jedi played a key role in their own demise, since none of their vast psychic gifts or centuries of solemn study allowed them to recognize the blackest-hearted humanoid in the universe--until he started chopping off hands and morphing into a prune-faced albino alien.

Palpatine enacts Order 66, which is not only the signal for clone troopers everywhere to summarily execute Jedi, it’s also the approximate number of seconds allotted to this legendary massacre. Through montage and video surveillance footage, we (finally) see glimpses of exotic alien worlds, where heroes fight for their lives against the burgeoning empire. It’s a moment that deserved its own film, or even its own TV series.

Which brings me to Lucas’ puzzling reliance on other media to tell one of his saga's most crucial chapters. What happened in the three years between Palpatine’s initial rise to power and the kidnapping that opens Episode III? Watch the Clone Wars cartoon show. Why does the film’s penultimate Big Bad, General Grievous, skulk about with a pathetic whooping cough? Watch the Clone Wars cartoon show. Why does Anakin fall to his knees like a chump and accept Palpatine’s invitation to become a genocidal traitor? Oh, hell, it’s probably a “B” story in one of the expanded-universe comics books. Stop asking questions; we’ve got a dramatic lava-planet sword fight to get to, followed by more montages and fan-service.

Yes, the climactic duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin is quite spectacular, and filled with some rare, real-world physicality (as well as its fair share of avert-your-eyes CG-rubber puppetry). But the ten-minute lightsabers-and-levitation brawl abruptly runs out of gas, as the notoriously lame “high ground” moment signals the end of subtlety and the need for new hope. Having squandered more than six hours on filler that absolutely no one had asked for, Lucas found himself dodging a Death Star-shaped clock that demanded he wrap things up.

In Sith's last ten minutes, we get Vader in costume, the twins' birth, Padmé dying of a broken heart (?), Padme's funeral, Obi-wan's trip to Tatooine, the introduction of the next movie's iconic Blockade Runner, and Vader and Palpatine surveying a sixteenth-built space station. In an alternate reality, this last stretch is comprised of trailer moments for the movie in which these key events in Star Wars history are given room to breathe, to matter. Instead, it feels like Lucas hobbling up to a finish line he forgot he'd drawn himself, and quietly cursing for having pre-gamed with jelly donuts.

Episode III is still the best of the prequels. But I'm not surprised Star Wars lay dormant for ten years while creatives and money-counters reconciled with a product that was at once wildly successful and very unpopular. When Abrams' take on the mythos hits theatres in December, we'll see whether the brash, young prodigy learns from his fallen forefather's mistakes, or if he succumbs to the worst instincts that made Lucas such a looming villain in fandom.

For more cracking KtS commentary on Star Wars, check out our ongoing podcast series, which currently includes Episodes I, II, III, and the just-released Episode IV!

*I’m tempted to use the word “fun”, but that’s mostly ironically true.

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