George Lucas’s final contribution to his epic Star Wars saga must rank as one of the most criminally underrated and most unfairly maligned films of all time. Rarely has true brilliance been so blindly dismissed.
This isn’t just a great film; this is a work of unparalleled stature, which exudes brilliance on almost every level – cinematography, editing, visual effects, choreography, score, and anything else you can think to mention. This is everything; epic storytelling, visual art, opera, performance art on the level of ballet, immense mythology. This is as good as it gets. There is never going to be a cinematic experience on this scale again or of this stature again. And that’s just as a film and a work of art.
As specifically a Star Wars film, it does even more. Scene to scene, ROTS is just perfect; from those foreboding opening war drums, the glorious opening battles in space and the beheading of Count Dracula (or Dooku), to the breathtaking montages of tragedy and betrayal, the tension simmers and prods throughout, culminating in a climax of extraordinary proportions.
Let’s set the record straight. Revenge of the Sith is an absolute masterpiece of Homeric proportions.
Everything from the absolutely gorgeous cinematography and CGI backdrops throughout to the superior special effects of the epic action sequences, to John Williams‘ heart-stirring music (the “Anakin’s Betrayal” theme that accompanies Order 66 and the montage of the slaughter of the Jedi is as powerful as ‘fantasy’-cinema gets), to the perfectly executed transitions between scenes (which Lucas is the absolute master of), right down to the dark, tortured and tragic story itself… everything about it, frame by frame, quietly whispers the under-appreciated genius of George Lucas and the pure capabilities of the staff he assembled at Lucasfilm.
Literally from the very first shot we are embarking upon a rollercoaster; those opening ten minutes or so of the battle in the upper atmosphere right through to the bleak confrontation with Dooku are extraordinary for how much is going on, every frame, every background, rich with detail.
Even when we leave the battle itself and shift to the interior scene we can still see so much going in space via the windows, the sub-battles all having their own continuity. And just within that first ten minutes we’ve got a complex, stunning war sequence, we’ve got Anakin/Obi-Wan banter, we’ve got a tense lightsaber duel, we’ve got the grim execution of Dooku, we’ve got the first stages of Palpatine’s evil manipulation and Anakin’s imminent journey into darkness, and we’ve even got time for Artoo-Deetoo heroics. And the film has barely started yet. But moreover, the tone of the beginning of ROTS is more in keeping with The Original Trilogy than anything in the previous two movies.
While an existing connection to or investment in the Star Wars universe does make the film resonate more – certainly watching Anakin’s downfall is more meaningful if you’ve watched him as a little boy in The Phantom Menace, for example, or if the themes of Return of the Jedi are firmly embedded in your consciousness from childhood – but even without any previous interest in the galaxy far, far away, there is more than enough here to satisfy.
There are too many superb moments and shots to even fully account for in a post like this; a defeated Yoda falling, minus his cloak, and needing to be rescued gets me in the throat as much as a bewildered Obi-Wan being handed the newborn Luke Skywalker and fully grasping the scope of the tragedy that has unfolded around him. From Anakin’s beheading of Dooku – one of the darkest, most memorable shots in all Star Wars – to his first (visible) breaths in the Darth Vader life-support outfit, the film is overflowing with the unforgettable. Epic action sequences, tense duels-to-the-death, emotional drama, broken relationships, betrayals, Wookie attacks, heartbreaking deaths and childbirths, falling Republics, slain children…
But it’s actually the quieter moments that really get you; the tension slowly building in the earlier scenes, particularly between Anakin and Padme, where you know Bad Things are going to happen, this foreknowledge tingeing every moment with bittersweet. Obi-Wan’s quiet, understated heartbreak, Yoda’s cleverly CGI’d sense of disappointment and loss, even Artoo-Deetoo’s palpable uneasiness as he accompanies the newly anointed Darth Vader to Mustafar to carry out his grim orders. Some of the genius of the film is in its smaller details; for example, the tiny moment of Tusken Raider cries being faintly audible when Palpatine reminds Anakin of his mother’s death.
Meanwhile most, though not all, of the big moments we’d spent years waiting to see were handled superbly, from the apocalyptic Anakin/Kenobi duel to the transformation of Palpatine into deformed Emperor and the birth of Padme’s twins. While I openly admit that the big “Noooo!!” moment with Vader was terrible, it was one misjudgement amid a multitude of far greater moments.
Windu attempting to arrest the Chancellor is one of the great scenes of the franchise. We know that it’s too late to save the galaxy at this point, but watching this critical duel unfold – a duel that will decide the future of the galaxy – is about as tense as Star Wars has ever been, as the scheming politician finally gives up his pretense and reveals his true nature.
Windu’s death is one of the best death scenes in Star Wars; but it’s all the details that make it fascinating – the fact that he defeats the Emperor, but that it’s Anakin’s emotional volatility and the easiness with which Palpatine has manipulated him, that ensures the Sith’s triumph and subsequently the fall of the Jedi, the Republic and democracy and the birth of Empire. Palpatine’s stomach-turning performance of helplessness to secure Anakin’s intervention is about as evil as evil gets on screen and his literal deformity transforms him into the sick, monstrous Emperor we all knew from Return of the Jedi in a transformation almost as powerful as Anakin’s later in the film. That scene in all its fate-of-the-galaxy-deciding tension is one of the very best in all six films, particularly preceded by that breathtakingly beautiful Anakin/Padme “silent scene” where Anakin is desperately trying to decide what to do.
And that moment when Anakin drops to his knees before the Emperor and gives himself over was more upsetting to me than almost anything in The Original Trilogy, including Han Solo being frozen in the carbonite. I’m sorry, I know a lot of Star Wars fans will pooh-pooh that statement, but’s it’s true. The sadness I felt seeing Han encased in carbonite was the sadness of a seven-year-old, the same sadness a seven-year-old today might have watching Finding Nemo or some such; but the sadness I felt watching Anakin through ROTS is the sadness of an adult who understands the nature and complexity of what that character is doing and why he’s doing it.
And actually one of the most fascinating plot decisions by George Lucas was to have it that Anakin Skywalker’s journey to the Dark Side, although it involved various other factors too, was primarily driven by his love for Padme. It’s because of love that he embraces hate; it’s his obsession with the girl he loves that makes him so easy for Palpatine to completely control. It takes the fall of Anakin Skywalker away from the dynamics of mere thirst for power or anything like that and makes it something much more human and simple that we can all immediately relate to.
The message ultimately, I think, is don’t fucking fall in love. You’ll end up slaying numerous children and eventually being burnt up head-to-toe in flames. But most of us probably already knew that.
The tragic, bitter irony, of course is that Anakin’s desperation to save Padme is based on his visions of her dying; this desperation makes him easy for Palpatine to turn with the promise of finding a way to save her. But it is Anakin who causes her death by trying so hard to prevent her death. How cruel is fate? Man, if the Force had treated me like that, I might turn too. It’s a profound twist in the plot, Shakespearean really – a profoundly cruel exploration of the pre-destination paradox.
Meanwhile the major sequence that perhaps the whole film was riding on – and that the whole trilogy was building to – was the Anakin/Obi-Wan duel; a scene that Star Wars fans had been imagining and waiting for for years and years.
And what a sequence. The lightsaber fighting itself is spellbinding, but it’s the emotional dimension to the fight that makes it so extraordinary; here are two people who clearly have love for each other, who clearly don’t want to have to do this, who both know that they’ve failed each other (though only Obi-Wan admits it), and who both know they have to kill the other.
Aided by John Williams’ awesome ‘Battle of the Heroes’ score (a more bittersweet variation on The Phantom Menace’s ‘Duel of the Fates’ theme, as per Lucas’s request), this sequence, as not just awesome spectacle but spectacle with emotional undercurrent, is unmatched by any action sequence in any comparable film. Find me one – specify it – if you can: I’d be fascinated to know what that would be.
The two former friends are perfectly matched, their abilities almost exactly equal. In the end it’s Anakin’s anger that is the difference between them – it undermines him, drawing him into a move he should’ve avoided and resulting in his being cut down by a remorseful Obi-Wan (it’s the same move Obi-Wan himself used to defeat Darth Maul in Episode I, which is presumably why it doesn’t work this time). As we watch Anakin’s body burning up in flames, it’s the darkest, most harrowing moment in Star Wars. But long before his body burns up, it’s Anakin’s mind that has been consumed already by the Dark Side and Obi-Wan knows this; the boy who once wanted nothing more than to “help people” and to go off on noble adventures as as Jedi now talks like a power-hungry ego-maniac.
This fight between the two of them is the ultimate fight between the Dark Side and the Light Side of the Force; Anakin fights with all his hatred, anger and bitterness, along with, we suspect, guilt over what he has already done, while Obi-Wan simply gives himself over to the Force – that’s how he wins. He doesn’t want to fight or destroy Anakin, but he’s doing what the Force itself demands. This duality carries on into their very last words to one another; Anakin’s vitriolic “I hate you” answered by Obi-Wan’s tearful “you were my brother, Anakin – I loved you.”
Even all this time later, I honestly cannot watch that moment where Anakin is engulfed in the flames; not because of any visual horror, but for the emotional horror of both his own suffering and Obi-Wan’s having to live through it, and the sense most of all that he realises, as the flames are rising up his body, that all of this has been for nothing. And seriously, anyone who thinks these films don’t have any quality acting in them needs to re-watch this scene for both Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen’s performances.
And when Obi-Wan picks up Anakin’s lightsaber – the lightsaber he will later hand to Luke – one stage of the great saga is over and we are immediately reminded that the other is waiting to begin afresh.
One of the other major moments we were waiting for, the Birth of the Twins, was handled immensely poignantly, particularly for Padme’s last words; the “there is still good in him” being whispered to Obi-Wan, as this plays beautifully into Luke’s attitude in Return of the Jedi.
For that matter, when all the dust has settled and enough time has passed, it’s Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith that are now the key pieces of the saga, the two entries that most resonate with each other. People who complain that the prequels added nothing to the Original Trilogy are massively mistaken; for one thing, ROTS breathes whole new life into Return of the Jedi. In light of ROTS, Luke’s attitude in ROTJ makes much more sense; his belief that there is still good in Anakin Skywalker has been inherited from his mother’s love for the Anakin that’s been lost.
Luke inherits this conviction from a mother he never knew and concerning a father he never knew either. Luke is the ultimate hero in the saga, because he remains a noble figure, untainted by past bitterness and recrimination – this is why he can believe in the good in Anakin when Obi-Wan and Yoda refuse to.
The Original Trilogy is, in fact, full of moments and elements that are given new life by ROTS; the Luke/Leia ‘Force-connection’ scene in Empire Strikes Back, for example, where Luke is hanging off Cloud City, calling out to Leia and she senses him through the Force and goes back for him. That moment was always poignant, but now it’s married beautifully to the scene in ROTS of Anakin and Padme sensing each other across the Coruscant cityscape, trying to touch each other through the Force. The difference is that Leia could come back and rescue Luke; but Padme was powerless to do anything for Anakin at that point.
And the dynamics of Palpatine’s attempted corruption of Luke in ROTJ are all the more fascinating to watch now that we’ve seen the seduction and downfall of Anakin Skywalker. Whereas Palpatine’s manipulation of Anakin takes place through a great deal of scheming and emotional games over a degree of time, by the time of ROTJ Palpatine is so all-powerful, so much further corrupted by the Dark Side, that he thinks he can convert Luke by sheer force of will. He doesn’t even consider Anakin/Vader a threat anymore, doing all of this in front of him and even belittling him to Luke. That’s how diminished “the Chosen One” is by now; he barely matters at all. That long, torturous decline begins with his horrifying immolation on Mustafar in ROTS, by which point he is already diminished in importance when the Emperor has him kept alive and put into the suit. But by the time of the second Death Star, Darth Vader is entirely disposable to Palpatine.
The dynamics of the final showdown between Palpatine, Luke and Vader in ROTJ are transformed by ROTS. Now we know that Vader isn’t just watching his son being murdered by the Emperor; he’s remembering how he himself was seduced by the same man and made to betray all his friends and everything he’d once held dear. He’s seeing how he should never have interfered with Mace Windu’s attempt to end the Sith threat. He’s seeing too that he has become to Palpatine what Count Dooku was at the beginning of ROTS; just as Palpatine had goaded Anakin into killing Dooku so that he could replace him, he is now goading Anakin’s own son into killing his father.
But most of all, in Luke Skywalker’s resistance to Palpatine’s manipulation, Vader is seeing the Jedi that he himself should’ve been all those years ago, he is seeing in Luke how he should’ve handled the evil Sith Lord’s manipulations.
And getting back to that death of Padme/Birth of Vadre sequence – the level of utter genius in how Lucas conceived and rendered this beggars belief. Padme literally dies giving birth to the heroes of the Original Trilogy, while at the same moment Anakin is being forced into the suit and taking his first breaths as Darth Vader; while the baffled medical droid says “for reasons we don’t know, she has lost the will to live”, what we’re really seeing is Padme’s life-force being sucked out of her through the Dark Side of the Force and being channelled into the Birth of Darth Vader. And even as this is happening, she still quietly insists to Obi-Wan that Anakin is not dead – there is still good in him, still hope for the future. And the way this whole sequence is juxtaposed, accompanied by John Williams’ haunting choral/gothic theme, really confirms for all time just how sublime and visionary a filmmaker and storyteller Lucas is. This is Shakespeare. This is Homer. This is Wagner. This is Lucas.
And yet for everything I’ve highlighted in this post, there’s so much in ROTS that I know I’m forgetting to even mention; the glorious Wookies (the WOOKIES!), the Obi-Wan/Grievous showdown (“So uncivilised…”), the opera scene, the now-turned Anakin mercilessly wiping out the Separatist leaders one at a time while the Emperor declares the Empire to a cheering Senate – a scene-structure Lucas admitted was inspired by his friend Francis Copolla’s work in The Godfather.
When I think of this film, I think of so many moments that moved me as a lifelong Star Wars fan; including the stunning “Order 66” montage with all the Jedi being assasinated by their own troops, caught off-guard. Accompanied by John Williams’ stirring choiral theme, we see all the nobility and heroism being systematically eliminated from the galaxy by literally mindless clones. The death of poor, noble Ki-Adi Mundi – surely the coolest of the prequels’ minor characters – shot down by his own troops, gets me in the gut every time. And when the Clone Troopers move in to assasinate Yoda in the same purge, they fail for once – I have never wanted to cheer so much in a film as when Yoda leaps up and beheads both Clone Troopers.
In the space of one montage sequence – barely a minute’s screen-time – I’ve felt sorrow and I’ve wanted to throw my fist in the air to cheer a double decapitation! That’s Revenge of the Sith.
For that matter, Yoda effortlessly taking out the two Imperial Guards when he goes to confront the Emperor is also a moment of genius – these were the two best moments Yoda had in the entire prequel trilogy. Largely, Yoda’s character has been somewhat diminished by the three prequels, but here were two moments that helped restore him as the original Master.
And if Order 66 wasn’t enough, we then go straight back to the Jedi Temple where the children are hiding; and when Anakin arrives they mistakenly believe he has come to rescue them. I’m sorry, but if that moment didn’t get you in the gut, then I really can’t help you anymore – you probably are better off with Transformers 2 or whatever.
And yet the emotion-laden moments continue. When we see the once proud and dutiful Padme Amidala now reduced to a woman with no remaining will to live, even as she is giving birth to her children. The deceased and beautified Padme’s funeral procession amid the Renaissance-style splendour of familiar Naboo is yet another one of the most stunning, memorable visuals of the entire franchise, and when we see right at the last moment that she is clinging to the hand-crafted gift Anakin gave her in The Phantom Menace we are surely feeling something, are we not?
And when Obi-Wan hands baby Luke Skywalker over to Owen and Beru and the swelling of the familiar Force Theme leads us to a visual familiar to every one of us and embedded deeply in our consciousness – that of Tatooine’s twin sunset – we remember where it all began and we have come full circle.
There is a new hope for the galaxy; and there is some Kleenex around here somewhere for those who need to dry their eyes.
For all the by-now-tedious talk about how the prequels failed or how they didn’t live up to fans’ expectations or desires, I personally – as a Star Wars fan since Empire Strikes Back at the age of seven – was not the least bit disappointed by Revenge of the Sith. Even with its two or three questionable moments or moments that didn’t quite work for me, the film blew me away. In fact, I’m not sure I can think of any other big-budget blockbuster type film that has ever come anywhere NEAR this level of across-the-board brilliance.
The child in me that was obsessed with Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi so many years earlier was satisfied by Revenge of the Sith; it felt like something a part of me had been waiting for my whole life. And the adult in me too was satisfied. And the adult and the child in me were merged, became one, for those two hours and for every subsequent viewing of the film too – a rare alignment of dual forces, for which I am forever grateful. That’s Star Wars; and that’s Revenge of the Sith.
Make no mistake, ‘Revenge of the Sith‘ is a work of immaculate genius, breathtaking beauty and unparalleled vision. It leaves everything else in the gutter, as far as big-budget cinema is concerned.
In a hundred years time, when almost all other billion-dollar big-screen orgies of our time are long-forgotten, George Lucas’s original (as in, ENTIRELY original, and not adapted from a comic book, TV series, computer game or novel, like practically all other big-budget movies) SF opus will stand out from the prevailing ennui of today’s blockbuster cinema like the Statue of Liberty rising out of the sand in that famous documentary about apes…