The movie chooses to show (rather than tell) that Anakin has been promoted to the ranks of Jedi Knight in the time since the last film. Likewise, Obi-Wan Kenobi is now a member of the Jedi High Council, the elite group of Jedi who serve as decision makers on the Republic’s homeworld of Coruscant. Their relationship to each other has changed, and so has their appearance. Obi-Wan is more clean-cut and diplomatic in his presentation, while Anakin is now scarred and worn down by the battles he’s seen. It’s an interesting visual note to pay attention to. Not only are these characters looking more like they belong in what we think of as the “classic era,” but it tells us a lot about how Obi-Wan and Anakin have been through the same war, yet been affected differently. Anakin bears physical scars, but Obi-Wan looks good and has a wicked-lush beard.
People had previously criticized The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones for not having enough action in space, and it appears that George Lucas took that to heart. This film opens with the biggest space battle we get in any Star Wars film so far, and contains everything AND the kitchen sink (the ILM team literally put a kitchen sink in the background of the battle). Palpatine has been “kidnapped” by Count Dooku, setting off The Battle of Coruscant above the Republic’s home planet. During this skirmish, we see Anakin as the Jedi Knight we always wanted him to be in the first two movies; he’s the best warrior that the Jedi have. He’s confident and brash, a little cocky and a little foolhardy, but he’s really likeable. I really wish that we’d had this Anakin for more than half of a movie. Later we’d get this Anakin in The Clone Wars television series, but it’s not the same. Those of us who grew up with classic Star Wars always knew that Anakin and Obi-Wan had fought side-by-side in the war, and we could only fantasize about what that would look like. In many ways, we’re still fantasizing, because we just don’t get to see very much of it.
After the battle, the story unfolds at a breakneck pace. The Jedi Council has finally started to suspect that they’re being manipulated (about time, guys), they refuse to promote Anakin to a Jedi Master which erodes his faith in their leadership further, Padme is pregnant, and Anakin is having visions of her dying in childbirth just like he had visions of his mother being tortured in the last movie. We also get a new villain in this film in General Grievous, a half-organic, half-machine character who I believe is a strong forerunner to Darth Vader. Before we actually have Vader, we have evidence that the technology exists to keep a person alive with the aid of machinery. Grievous has a raspy, ragged breath and a constant cough, which reminds us that sacrifices have been made in order for him to stay alive and being half-robot is no party. I think the specter of Anakin’s destiny hangs over the whole movie through General Grievous.
I’ve always been drawn to the theological and mythological elements of Star Wars as much as --if not more than-- the lightsabers and space battles, so the scene that takes place between Anakin and Chancellor Palpatine at that weird water-opera thingy is probably my favorite in the whole film. In it, Palpatine baits Anakin and firmly sets the hook. He tells Anakin the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise, who was “so powerful and so wise, he could use the Force to influence the midichlorians to create life. He had such a knowledge of the dark side, he could even keep the ones he cared about from dying.” He then tells Anakin that Plagueis’ apprentice killed him in his sleep.
If the front half of the movie is loaded with heroic deeds and plot exposition, the back half is all action in service of paying off EVERYTHING. It even goes out of its way to bring in Chewbacca, who has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Truthfully, my biggest problem with Revenge of the Sith is that it contains so many ideas and bits of business that it doesn’t have enough time to unpack everything. We had two whole movies before this one in which many of these themes could have been explored, but were spent on other things. I wonder why Anakin had to be 8 years old in the first movie and why we don’t really even get a glimpse of true darkness within him until the end of Episode II. His whole decline occurs pretty quickly, if you think about it. There’s a lot of rushing going on.
There’s also very little interaction in Revenge of the Sith between Anakin and Obi-Wan, and I’m of two minds concerning that. Once we get through the beginning of the movie, Anakin and Obi-Wan are on two different paths. Obi-Wan travels to the planet Utapau to look for Grievous while Anakin is once again on his own, isolated from the Jedi Council and looking desperately for recognition and trust from his peers and superiors. What Anakin needs most is a father figure to tell him that he’s done well and that they’re proud of him. That person should be Obi-Wan, but Obi-Wan simply isn’t available. I doubt he’d give Anakin that sort of pat on the back anyway because it’s just not who he is. You can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Qui-Gon had lived and trained Anakin. Qui-Gon was in touch with what was happening all the time, and deeply connected to the Force. I get the impression in this movie that everyone is just too busy putting out so many fires to really invest in what’s really going on (perhaps a metaphor for the making of the Prequel films?). Anyway, I’m not sure if the lack of communication between Obi-Wan and Anakin is intentional, or just the way things worked out as the movie was made. If it is by design, then I think this is a really well done and adds a ton of shading to these characters. It would have been nice to see some further exploration of these themes instead of it being in the background, though.
When it comes, Anakin’s fall to the dark side is fast…maybe too fast. He turns on Mace Windu, cutting off his hand (there’s a lot of that in these films) and opening him up for a fatal blow, and then immediately gives himself over to Palpatine/Sidious. In a matter of minutes the eradication of the Jedi Order is in full swing and Anakin, now dubbed Darth Vader, marches into the Jedi Temple and kills a bunch of children. One more shout out to George Lucas and his willingness to go there. These movies started with a little kid having a space adventure and now six years later we’re watching that character kill children. We like to root for the bad guy, but it’s hard to root for that bad guy when he’s wiping out innocent kids. It’s kind of indefensible. It’s also worth pointing out that this was the first (and currently only) Star Wars film to get a PG-13 rating. Lucas could have cut scenes and made some different choices to get a PG, but he didn’t, and I applaud that he chose to include the ugliness. It pushes the story far outside the realm of fun space opera, but it also has a ton of impact.
I feel like the final conflict of the film really works. Palpatine/Sidious sends Anakin to the industrial planet of Mustafar to kill the leaders of the Trade Federation, who have been around since the beginning of The Phantom Menace with that pesky blockade. They are no longer necessary, and with both the Jedi Council and the Trade Federation out of commission, Palpatine can now take total, unregulated control over the government, forming it into one Empire.
Obi-Wan and Padme end up on Mustafar in pursuit of Anakin, and the drama of their confrontation really works for me -- that is to say, the whole thing makes me SUPER uncomfortable. I feel bad for Padme, who has seen the father of her children descend into a homicidal madness. Natalie Portman doesn’t get a whole lot to do in this movie besides stand around and be pregnant, but her scenes at the end of the movie almost make up for this lack of substance. She’s so good at looking devastated that we feel the betrayal. The truth is that she should have seen it coming a mile away. After all, this guy killed all those Tusken Raiders a few years ago, and she didn’t say anything about it. On the contrary, she comforted him after he committed the murders. Now he’s killing more people and she’s acting surprised? Puh-leeze! Yet somehow, Natalie Portman makes it all work and feel like it came out of the blue and that she’s broken-hearted about it all.
Likewise, Ewan McGregor’s performance as Obi-Wan in this scene is fantastic. There’s so much confusion and sadness behind it all. When he tells Anakin “you were my brother,” it’s so tragic, because you know that Anakin never felt the same way about Obi-Wan. There was always an undercurrent of resentment there that Obi-Wan apparently never picked up on. McGregor really shows that everything he thought he knew has been turned upside down. He really believed in Anakin, and he really thought he was the Chosen One. He’s watching his world crumble and burn, literally. Can you imagine another actor trying to give this performance? Can you imagine Alec Guiness trying to tap into that level of emotion? Ewan is outstanding here. I even think Hayden is good in this scene. When he screams “I hate you” with those yellow Sith eyes glowing, I believe he means it.
But a tragedy that ends with some hope. Before they embark on their self-imposed exile, Yoda tells Obi-Wan that he’s been in communication with Qui-Gon Jinn, who has learned how to become one with the Force and retain his consciousness even in death. It’s ironic that what Palpatine promised Anakin is something that Anakin’s first master has actually accomplished. It’s hard not to play the “if only” game. I love that this scene implies that Yoda still has much to learn, despite being almost 900 years old. Maybe this is why he’s so much wiser when we see him next in The Empire Strikes Back? Finally, we meet the twins, Luke and Leia. We’ve seen so much darkness throughout the movie, so it’s that much more powerful to see Obi-Wan hand baby Luke off to his aunt and uncle as they stand against the twin suns setting over Tatooine. The movie ends with their silhouettes as John Williams’ familiar music reminds us that there is a new hope.
There are a lot of things about Revenge of the Sith that took me by surprise upon first seeing it, and a lot of choices that seemed unconventional and perhaps unfortunate. However, time is the ultimate equalizer, and I now think the movie works really well and packs a gigantic dramatic punch in a way that most summer blockbusters aren’t interested. There’s an awful lot going on in the movie; there are space battles and lightsaber battles and battles on weird vehicles that seemed designed to sell toys, but the core of the film is the relationships between the characters, and I respect the heck out of that. Action for action’s sake is fine for a temporary piece of entertainment, but it makes for candy bar filmmaking that leaves you unsatisfied. When you ground the action in your characters, it gives you reason to come back again and again. For all the crap that George Lucas has taken for the Prequel Trilogy, I think he grounded the whole thing in his characters and their weaknesses. It’s not the same kind of character development that we’re going to see in the Classic Trilogy, and I appreciate that. It seems to me that the Classic Trilogy takes a look at the events of the galaxy from the Outer Rim, far from the center of the action, and shows how even the most insignificant of players can make a huge difference. The Prequel Trilogy does the opposite and shows us the explosion from the center outward. The two trilogies aim to do two very different things. One is more mythic and fantastic, while the other is far more personal. Really, I suspect these movies come straight from George Lucas’ heart and are filled with the life lessons and the heartbreaks he’s encountered over the years. Everyone can relate to being afraid, but fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. You want evidence of what that looks like? Here you go. The films aren’t perfect, but they’re deeply rooted in the human condition. The goal of the Prequels isn’t the same as the Original Trilogy, and they do what the other trilogy does not: show the creation of a myth.
I’ll see you back here in a few weeks as Luke, Han, and Leia embark on the adventure of a lifetime. Until then, may the Force be with you.