Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (United States, 2005)

November 15, 2015
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith Poster

Revenge of the Sith is the most technically accomplished of all the Star Wars movies. Putting aside other important aspects of the cinematic experience (like storytelling, for example), it’s hard to argue that the special effects work in the third prequel isn’t more spectacular than anything previously attempted by George Lucas. From start to finish, Revenge of the Sith redefines how a science fiction spectacle can look. But Episode III isn’t all flash-and-bang. It provides viewers with some of the series’ most emotionally wrenching moments as the inevitable transformation from Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader makes the leap from imagination to reality.

Since the late 1970s, fans have wondered about the moment. There have been artists’ conceptions and Lucas has talked about it openly. But it took 28 years for viewers to finally see the unvarnished spiral into darkness that forced a comely young man into one of the most iconic costumes of the 20th century. Revenge of the Sith is about the death of Anakin Skywalker and the birth of Darth Vader and, although there’s nothing subtle about the transition, Lucas provides gradations to the defection. Anakin isn’t so much seduced by power as he is persuaded by the fear of losing a loved one and the sting of rejection by those whose opinions he values. The Jedi may not be directly responsible for Vader but their role in his creation cannot be ignored. The poor judgment shown by these supposedly wise men illustrates that their order was primed for a fall. Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, recognizing this, exploits it.

Revenge of the Sith opens with a space battle to end all space battles. I doubt we’ll see its like again. After the introductory crawl trumpets "War!", we accompany Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor, looking more like Alec Guiness than in either of his previous appearances in this role) on a rescue mission to save a kidnapped Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) and his ally, General Grevious, leader of the droid army. It's all a ruse, but our heroes don't know that at the time. After returning home in triumph, Anakin discovers that life has gotten more complicated. His secret wife, Padme (Natalie Portman), is pregnant and Anakin begins to have premonitions of her death. Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) doesn’t trust “The Chosen One”, believing the young man to be reckless and ambitious - an assessment with which Yoda (Frank Oz) agrees. As the Clone Wars approach their final battle, a pending betrayal lurks. Revenge of the Sith climaxes with two classic confrontations: Anakin against Obi-Wan and the Emperor against Yoda. Revenge of the Sith isn’t about answering questions or providing surprises but fulfilling expectations. We may know how the Anakin/Obi-Wan duel ends, but the thrill here is seeing how it plays out.

One of Revenge of the Sith’s primary functions is to set up A New Hope. The third prequel represents a bridge between eras. It illustrates the fall of the Republic and the Rise of the Empire. It introduces Luke and Leia (albeit as babies), Chewbacca, and a newly golden C3PO. The Rebel Blockade Runner, Death Star, and Luke’s Tatooine home make appearances. And, of course, Darth Vader dons the mask, speaks using James Earl Jones’ baritone, and takes his first tottering steps.

Some fans were quick to criticize Vader’s reaction to Padme’s death. Admittedly, hearing Jones’ wail of “Noooo!” is disconcerting but, if one considers the situation, it’s a reasonable reaction. This isn’t the cold, calcified Vader of A New Hope. The man inside the mask is mostly an emotionally volatile Anakin at this point and he has just seen his greatest dread - the primary reason for his embracing the Dark Side - come to fruition as a result of his own actions. The rawness of this response is pure Anakin.

Revenge of the Sith is a dark movie and even its few lighthearted moments come under a cloud of grim expectations. We know what will happen and, the closer it gets, the weightier the dread. The blackest moment in all six movies occurs at the precise moment in Revenge of the Sith when Anakin gives himself fully to the dark side and murders the Jedi children in training. This event isn’t shown on screen but one doesn’t need to see it to feel the horror. This completes the transition begun by Anakin in Attack of the Clones when rage overtook him and he slaughtered a tribe of Sand People.

Although Lucas’ directorial weaknesses are occasionally evident in Revenge of the Sith, they are less detrimental here than in the other prequels. The filmmaker feels more at home when addressing dark material - it’s no surprise that the best chapters of the Star Wars saga are this one and The Empire Strikes Back. Little comedy is attempted; Jar-Jar Binks is thankfully relegated to a cameo. C3PO and R2D2 have recovered from the droid factory silliness in Attack of the Clones and evolved into the characters they would be in A New Hope. Some of the dialogue between Anakin and Padme is awkward but those scenes are short and serve their purpose of illustrating how paranoid Anakin has become about losing his wife. The film’s “big” moments are expertly handled and flawlessly executed: the rescue of Palpatine, the seduction of Anakin, the duel with Mace Windu, the final confrontation with General Grievous, the Yoda/Palpatine conflict, and the climactic confrontation above the lava of Mustafar.

Palpatine’s manipulation of Anakin is masterful - far more effective than his cackling and goading of Luke in Return of the Jedi. The layered way in which the Emperor bends Anakin’s thinking and warps his view of “good” and “evil” is in stark contrast with how he attempts to “win” Luke to his side and it makes the Vader/Emperor/Luke scenes (the best Return of the Jedi has to offer) less compelling. Palpatine recognizes that Anakin has the power to surpass him (he admits that to Yoda) but his mastery over his apprentice never falters until the very end… three films hence.

Compared to Attack of the Clones, the performances are stronger across-the-board, with perhaps only Natalie Portman failing to “up her game.” Hayden Christensen’s acting is notably improved. The doomed, tragic figure that Anakin has become is a better fit for Chistensen than the petulant teenager of the previous film. Christensen capably conveys Anakin’s dramatic arc. Ewan McGregor and Ian McDiarmid bring their respective characters closer to where they would be in the later chapters, with McGregor continuing to adopt Alec Guinness’ mannerisms and McDiarmid dropping Palpatine’s false “caring” attitude. Samuel L. Jackson finally gets an opportunity to do something heroic although (truth be told) Mace Windu still comes across as blind and arrogant - qualities one might more readily associate with a Sith than a Jedi.

Although Revenge of the Sith is the third volume of the prequel trilogy, its quality places it alongside A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back as the best Star Wars has to offer. Its flaws are easily forgiven; it offers the same successful blend of high energy sci-fi melodrama, epic tragedy, and satisfying storytelling provided by Episodes IV and V. In many ways, Revenge of the Sith is the most important chapter of the first six episodes and, until its release, the Star Wars saga remained incomplete. Once it was available, however, viewers were able to see the themes Lucas was attempting to convey across the two trilogies. Revenge of the Sith exists not only as a fine chapter in its own right but its existence improves the other five segments, adding context and depth not only to the two other prequels but to all three members of the original trilogy.

For my original review, go to this link.

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (United States, 2005)

Director: George Lucas
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Oz, Temuera Morrison, Peter Mayhew, Jimmy Smits
Home Release Date: 2005-11-01
Screenplay: George Lucas
Cinematography: David Tattersall
Music: John Williams
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 2:20
U.S. Release Date: 2005-05-19
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Genre: Science Fiction
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1