From the Vault #15: STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from May 28th, 2014, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

It was back in 1973 that the beginnings of what would become Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith came to life, as George Lucas roughly mapped out the entire Star Wars saga without specifics four years before Episode IV would take the world by storm and create a cinematic legacy unlike perhaps any other before or since.

Much as the previous two prequels underwhelmed significantly from a creative standpoint, leaving many fans with a sense of caution going forward, few would deny Revenge of the Sith remained much anticipated. This was the story we had all been waiting for – forget the preamble and effectively set up of The Phantom Menace & Attack of the Clones, this would be where it all came together, Lucas ready to show us just how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader & the Galactic Empire rose from the ashes of the Jedi. How could such an epic tale three decades in the making fail? The good news is, well… on the whole it doesn’t.

Revenge of the Sith is by some distance the finest Star Wars prequel and though it can’t quite sit on a par with the original trilogy, it skirts close with a combination of epic visuals, narrative power and finer characterisation than the previous two movies combined.

The very first word of the opening crawl to John Williams’ iconic theme sums it up: ‘war!’.

From the off, Lucas launches us into the first of about a million space battles as the galaxy erupts into conflict and it’s fair to say he over kills on that aspect, despite how state of the art his CGI is & how detailed & creative a world he delivers on screen. One might bemoan the very swift offing of Christopher Lee’s already underused Count Dooku in the first ten minutes, but it serves a narrative point: Anakin does what his son Luke was later unable to do, be goaded by Palpatine into killing the apprentice before him, and it pushes him into arguably the centre point of the movie and indeed it’s strongest factor: Anakin’s complete descent into the Dark Side.

Hayden Christensen remains, of course, absolutely atrocious in the role and he’s working from, again, a fairly robotic script from Lucas (though it’s an improvement on the last two, which is damning with faint praise to be fair) but this time around the character does seem to work better. Anakin’s arrogance better serves the story being told and it’s fair to say Ian McDiarmid’s delightfully evil-camp performance as Palpatine helps elevate Christensen, given the sheer amount of scenes they share. Lucas really hones in on Anakin’s descent too, perhaps to the detriment of Natalie Portman getting much to do as Padme beyond look worried, and even Ewan McGregor gets a bit sidelined in places as Obi-Wan Kenobi, as Lucas desperately tries to give everyone and their mum who’ve featured across the trilogy a wrap up or something to do. Nonetheless, wobbly performance and script aside, Lucas nails Anakin’s journey and that’s probably why Sith works.

There’s also a stronger sense of darkness and ominousness to the storytelling which gives it a shade more depth. Lucas doesn’t seem as keen on pandering to children or toy manufacturers here as he was in the previous two–how else to explain him gleefully letting Anakin slaughter Jedi ‘younglings’?–with only perhaps the rather strange half-villain droid General Grievious being an addition perhaps better left on the design table. Lucas aims for the darker heft of The Empire Strikes Back here and at times he almost gets there – be it the creepy moments of Palpatine becoming Darth Sidious (which allow Samuel Motherf*ckin’ Jackson the coolest death of the prequel trilogy) or his description of his tantalising backstory, and of course ultimately the climactic, inevitable battle between Anakin & Obi-Wan–backed up by a stunning piece of music by Williams–on the side of a freakin’ erupting volcano no less!

You can’t deny Lucas really wants to portray the epic, tragic nature of how this chapter of the story ends and he often sells it well – a brace too many lightsaber battles there may be (fun as it was, did we really need Sidious vs Yoda?), by the time we reach the final confrontation which sells Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader it’s as intense, thrilling and epic as Lucas or anyone else could have achieved; there’s a strong argument that Sith is the best directed Star Wars film he’s ever made and at times that’s hard to dispute. A big question mark nonetheless remains quite on Anakin’s ultimate motivations for becoming Vader, because it doesn’t *quite* ring true – did he really *have* to do all of this evil to save Padme? Especially when she seems to just decide ‘f*ck this, I’m checking out’ rather than die hellishly in childbirth. It’s as contrived as the hideous “nooooooo” scream by the newly minted Vader that just leaves you shaking your head and wondering if he can ever be taken seriously again.

We all feared Revenge of the Sith though was going to be a right old mess, or a tragically dull end to what previously had been an underwhelming beginning and middle to a saga we’d waited decades to see, but finally finally George Lucas manages to pull it out the bag for the conclusion. Admittedly the script remains stilted with wooden dialogue, with many of the performances fashioned out of cardboard & many of the central relationships not nearly as involving as they should be, but the sense of scale and impact from a narrative perspective is far more apparent here, and crucially the descent into darkness of Anakin Skywalker works – even with some slightly dodgy motivation behind it, that sees Lucas perhaps chickening out of making him an out & out villain.

Truth is, much as you might hate to admit it, Revenge of the Sith is a better movie than you might remember and while it’s still not near the quality of the original trilogy, it’s perhaps the salvation of the prequel trilogy and ultimately what makes the whole endeavour worthwhile.

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