The original Star Wars trilogy was simply a self-contained fantasy-adventure story. The prequel trilogy, on the other hand, was structured around a particular event that would lead into that future story. The whole thing is (at least in theory) is built around the moment where Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader, and it is that moment which Revenge of the Sith is all about.
The result is easily the best of the prequels, not just because it’s more tightly focused and has more of a coherent storyline, but also because it feels as if George Lucas had at last started to learn some lessons in writing and direction. It’s still clunky at times and there are still stretches of terrible dialogue, but the storytelling is much stronger than the previous two, and despite its poor foundations the film actually manages to be remarkably solid and carries real emotional weight.
We open with a spectacular space battle over Coruscant as Anakin and Obi-Wan race to rescue Chancellor Palpatine from Count Dooku. They succeed, but during the battle Palpatine convinces Anakin to murder Dooku when he gets him at a disadvantage. There’s a crash landing (which is really cool), and separatist leader General Grievous escapes and Obi-Wan is tasked to go after him in the hopes of cutting the head off the movement and ending the war.
At the same time, however, the Jedi Council grows increasingly worried about the amount of power Palpatine has acquired, especially as he’s long since overstayed his term in office. They resolve that once Grievous is caught, they’ll remove Palpatine from power if he doesn’t step-down voluntarily, fully aware that this might require them to assume control of the Senate for a time.
Meanwhile, Amidala has revealed to Anakin that she’s pregnant, potentially exposing their secret marriage and resulting in him being expelled from the Jedi Order (The scene where she reveals this news to him is excellent, by the way, with some very good acting by Hayden Christensen as he processes this development). Anakin, however, is more worried about the nightmares he has begun to have of her dying in childbirth; just like the dreams he had right before his mother died.
All of this combines to drive Anakin further away from the Jedi and towards Palpatine, who claims to have knowledge that might be able to save Amidala from dying. Palpatine also begins to feed him suggestions that the Jedi might be seeking to take control of the Republic…which unfortunately is a very plausible explanation for their behavior as they seek to remove him from power (and, insidiously, is exactly what he is doing).
So, just from that we can see that the storytelling is much better this time around. Character motivations generally make sense (with a few exceptions, which we’ll come to) and the plot is easy to follow. We still don’t know just what this war is all about, or why the Separatists are supposed to be the bad guys (I had to laugh when the Trade Federation guy is killed just as he’s trying to explain his motives), but once granting that there is a war on everything else more or less plays out reasonably.
Not only that, but the character actions have real emotional power behind them. We get to see them struggling with trying to do the right thing, wrestling with their consciences, and yet ultimately picking their choices in the heat of the moment when no one is thinking clearly. There’s a fantastic scene mid-way through, where all the pieces are in place, and we cut between Anakin and Amidala, in different parts of the city, silently making up their minds what path they will take. There’s no dialogue, just somber music and visuals (as indicated, the acting is notably better this time around as well; there is still a lot of bad dialogue and awkward performances, but also patches of real, solid emoting. Hayden Christensen in particular is excellent in several key scenes). It creates the sense of huge weight suspended on a point, about to fall one way or another, and we’re just watching to see which way it’ll go.
Likewise there’s a great scene at a theater before that where Palpatine does a little quiet manipulation of Anakin by sharing the legend of Darth Plagius, a Sith Lord so powerful he could create life and stop death (this hints at an explanation for Anakin’s virgin birth. That point is still stupid, but at least they did something kind of interesting with it here at the end of the trilogy). And the scene where Anakin and Obi-Wan say goodbye, though they don’t know it, for the last time as friends is also really good, especially since we the audience know what is going to happen. It mirrors Han and Luke saying goodbye in the original film, and we feel the tragedy of it.
And all of this works towards the end; the actions of the Jedi Council, the actions of Anakin, of Palpatine, of Obi-Wan, of Yoda, they all play a part in what happens, and yet we are able to understand why they all do what they do, and why, from their point of view, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Plot wise, the film is pretty solid.
The dialogue has improved as well. There’s still a lot of clunky or cringe-inducing lines (especially when it tries to get romantic), but there are also some pretty good lines, whether comedic (“How did this happen? We’re smarter than this!” “Apparently not.”) or dramatic (“This is a happy moment. The happiest moment of my life”).
The opening sequence, of a high-adventure space-battle leading to a raid on a big capital ship, is the sort of thing we ought to have gotten throughout this trilogy; fast-paced, thrilling heroics with Anakin and Obi-Wan. I also like that, over-the-top as the action is, they don’t take it too far; Anakin’s a skilled pilot and warrior, but he can’t break the laws of reality to suit his will (e.g. when he tries to shoot a bunch of gremlin droids off of Obi-Wan’s fighter, he ends up blowing off part of the wing).
Anakin is really a lot more likable in this film: he’s still whiney and entitled in parts, but he also has scenes of humility and expresses real affection and respect towards Obi-Wan, and has a more believably affectionate relationship with his wife. When he has his nightmare, he doesn’t try to hide it but tells her the truth. We actually have something like the ‘good man’ that Obi-Wan described in the original film, at least in fits and starts.
Though that’s a problem for the trilogy as a whole: Anakin is too immature and too young throughout it. He never comes across as anything more than a teenager at best: a well-meaning and responsible teenager here, but still an adolescent. He never becomes a man: a mature, integrated, confident personality. Han Solo was a man, so was Luke in the latter part of the trilogy, and so is Obi-Wan here. Anakin never comes across as an adult, and that’s a huge detriment if he’s supposed to become Darth Vader (although I will say that he is genuinely intimidating after he turns, with his glowering, hyper-focused expressions while he’s trying to kill people).
Another perennial problem is that they keep switching villains. Count Dooku gets killed in the first act and the rest of the film is pursuing a new villain called General Grievous, who takes over after Dooku’s death. Why bother? Why not just have Dooku be the main villain throughout and have his death spark the crisis with Palpatine? It would have been a lot more streamline and given his character some actual space to develop. As it is, for all Christopher Lee’s charisma, Dooku is basically a non-character: he shows up at the end of the second film and beginning of the third to have a fight with Anakin and Obi-Wan, beat them the first time and lose the second. It’s confusing, not engaging, and a horrible waste of a great actor.
Grievous gets some cool things to do (like launching himself into space or whipping out four lightsabers at once), and has a decent design, but we barely have a chance to get to know him, we’re not really intimidated by him because he’s kind of goofy with his bombastic voice and ever present cough, and he’s basically just eating up time. Granted, there is tension in the lead up to his death, but only because we know it will precipitate the show-down with Palpatine, which would have been better served by a character with more weight. Again, I really can’t fathom why they would hire Christopher Lee and then do almost nothing with him (about the only thing worse would be hiring someone like Max Von Sydow and then killing him off in the first five minutes).
Another problem is the clones. Why, oh why, did they have the Republic soldiers be clones? That just raises so many issues, such as that the war seems have almost no effect on the day-to-day life of the Republic, that it’s weird for Anakin and Obi-Wan to treat them like normal people and even express concern for their welfare, and that we know the Stormtroopers in the original films aren’t clones, so there’s a disconnect between the two trilogies. The clones ought to have been the villain troops (dropping the useless battle droids, which barely seem capable of basic self-preservation, let alone presenting a credible danger to others), with the Republic forced to militarize to counteract this threat. That would mirror how both Anakin personally and the Jedi Council as a whole are doing things they would never have imagined to deal with the crisis and emphasized how much of a toll the war was taking and why it was important to end. It’s just one of the many huge, unfathomable mistakes made in plotting this trilogy.
That said, I do appreciate that this film tries to do what it can with the material it has. Though things like the death of Anakin’s mother, his meeting Amidala when he was eight, and so on are themselves poorly conceived, the film applies them in ways that both make sense and further the plot in interesting ways. Anakin’s already failed a loved one before and is desperate not to do so again, but gets no help from the Jedi (more on that in a bit). Also the application of midichlorians and the virgin birth already mentioned. The film is saddled with the terrible decisions of the past, but it actually tries to put them to good use and does a fairly decent job of it (in this it actually reminds me a bit of Freddy vs. Jason, another film that had a ton of terrible baggage, but did a good job of making something worthwhile out of it. Funny how often I refer to that movie).
As for Anakin’s fall itself, there is good and bad. On one hand, the reasoning behind it is solid, as is the progression of him acting suddenly, realizing what he’s done, and then resolving to follow through. I also like how he quickly starts both rationalizing it to himself (“My allegiance is to the Republic”) and trying to cover it up (telling Amidala that Obi-Wan’s trying to manipulate her when she asks about his crimes, not explicitly denying them, but trying to deflect her attention). On the other, there is no origin for the name Darth Vader; it comes across like Palpatine is just picking it out of a hat.
The real problem though is that he goes too far too fast, especially given his supposed motives. I’m sorry, but you can’t go from “What have I done?” to cold-bloodedly slaughtering frightened children within hours. Also, his excuse to himself and Amidala is that the Jedi are plotting to betray the Republic: that obviously wouldn’t apply to the children, so his killing them makes no sense even from his own point of view. How the sequence should have played out would be Anakin fights the adult Jedi (along with the Stormtroopers), then captures the children for re-education, only for it to turn out, or be implied that Palpatine actually had them quietly murdered. That would have been bad enough while allowing us to understand his motives. As it is, he simply dives headlong off the slippery slope for no apparent reason (though again, they try to justify it by having Palpatine promise to save his wife if he does what he’s told, it just isn’t enough).
And the word “Younglings” is stupid, especially since they have to use it in the most dramatic scenes.
Despite those flaws, the whole set up is well-conceived after the fashion of a Greek Tragedy, where Anakin violates the moral code he’s supposedly committed to in order to avert a future disaster, only to inadvertently bring it about by his own actions. It’s both credible and human; who wouldn’t be willing to do almost anything to save a loved one? And once you had, wouldn’t you feel obligated to keep on doing ‘anything’ even as your original goal slips away? It’s very nicely done, and fits well with Vader’s character in the originals (he makes the same offer to his wife as he later makes to his son: We can overthrow the Emperor and rule together, bringing order to a galaxy long torn by strife).
The fight with Obi-Wan isn’t badly set up, and it does feel weighty, leavened by several dramatic moments and spectacular shots (love the one scene of them clashing while lava erupts behind them), but it drags on far too long and gets way too over the top. Not to mention I don’t like how it ends, with Obi-Wan leaving Anakin to burn to death. He should at least put him out of his misery. It should have been that he didn’t realize Anakin was still alive and their final exchange happened elsewhere. That final exchange (“I hate you!” “I loved you.”) is very nice, however.
On the other hand, the Yoda versus the Emperor fight is completely gratuitous, especially since it doesn’t even really have a resolution: it just sort of stops. Then Yoda declares he’s going into exile. Why? It didn’t really look like he lost, and anyway, why go into exile? I’m sure the Rebellion could use him.
Speaking of Yoda, his doctrine of detachment, advising Anakin to accept the death of the unknown loved one he’s trying to save, inadvertently leads to him becoming Darth Vader and the destruction of the Jedi. Likewise he tried to warn Luke against turning Vader in Return of the Jedi and continues to expect detachment. Taken in light of the two trilogies, a case could be made that we’re watching the Jedi ethic turn from a Buddhist ideal of self-sacrifice through detachment to a Christian ethic of self-sacrifice through love of others.
On that note, it’s well-conceived that the very thing that allowed Palpatine to turn Anakin is the very thing that will one day lead Vader to turn on him; his love of his family. Clumsily and often poorly as it was done, credit must be given to Lucas for setting this up as a key factor in Anakin’s character. Likewise, it makes sense that Palpatine wouldn’t foresee this; he’s too arrogant and too selfish to see love as anything besides dangerous attachment that can lead to anger, hatred, and the Dark Side. Palpatine is a lot like Yoda in this regard: it takes Luke and Vader to prove their perspective wrong and, presumably, bring a new understanding to the Jedi.
Visually the film continues the spectacular imaginative imagery of the previous two films. This has been a consistently strong element of the prequels and it’s in full force here, with the endless cityscapes of Coruscant looking better than ever, a world of caves and giant lizards, and the final showdown on the lava-ridden world of Mustapha. In between we get glimpses of several other different and visually striking planets, including a brief look at the surface of Alderan and our first proper view of the Wookie home world, Kashyyyk (though, honestly, I thought it was much more striking in the Knights of the Old Republic game, where the trees were so tall and so dense that the surface was a land of perpetual gloom and darkness). Chewbacca getting a cameo is completely gratuitous, however.
And the downfall of the Jedi, with the somber music, Yoda, staggering under the disturbance to the Force, and the various knights being mowed down one after another by people they thought were their allies, is very well done. For all that the Jedi lacked the sense of grandeur and heroism they ought to have had, it does feel impactful to watch their fall.
Speaking of visuals, we really didn’t need to have Palpatine turned into the withered, cloak-shrouded image of the Emperor we knew, but seeing him standing beside Vader in the final moments is very striking. In this final effort they actually did at last make several useful points of continuity, from Obi-Wan commenting that the Emperor needs the Senate intact to keep the galaxy under control to him picking up Anakin’s lightsaber to one day give to Luke. On the other hand, why wipe 3PO’s memory, except that there was no way to make the continuity work otherwise?
Basically, this film is a lot more competently done than the previous two. It is as if, realizing he needed to get this one right, Lucas buckled down and actually put in the time to improve his craft in between movies, producing something that, while it doesn’t approach the quality of the originals, is nonetheless a solid piece of work.
I especially appreciate that the film is a tragedy: there is no happy ending, and there’s very little humor outside the opening sequence and some parts of Obi-Wan’s quest. They keep what humor they have to where it’s appropriate, unlike having Jar-Jar doing pratfalls right after seeing Qui-Gon get stabbed, or having 3PO making bad puns while young Boba Fett is cradling his father’s severed head. Once the third act is underway, there’s almost no comedy (at least, no intentional comedy): the droids are very subdued and the few lines they have are straightforward comments rather than jokes. This was a bold, but necessary choice: people are supposed to feel the ending as something somber and heartbreaking, and for the most part it is. Things like the Palpatine hamming it up in his speech, or the infamous “NOOOOO!” when the newly created Darth Vader rises from his slab are unfortunate lapses that sort of kill otherwise dramatic moments.
The prequel trilogy, as a whole, is uneven at best. The first two are frankly very bad films, though they each have their highlights to show there was talent and passion behind them. However, like a struggling baseball team at the bottom of the Ninth, Lucas and his crew managed to pull things together to produce, not a great film, but a decent, arguably a good film. There are still a lot of flaws, but the high points of this movie elevate to what can be categorized as a win, in the process partly validating the previous two. It’s the one that most needed to work, and by and large it does,
In short, I come away from the prequels glad that they’re over, but also feeling like they did add something worthwhile to the story. They’re not necessary, and often insufferable, but they do manage to continue and even add layers to the overarching theme that, just as the Death Star paled in comparison to the Force, so the Force itself is outstripped by the bonds of love and family. And for that, and for the other positives they contain, I will ultimately say I’m glad I saw them.