You guessed it, it’s time for MORE of my thoughts, musings, and ruminations on the Star Wars films. As I continue my movie-by-movie discussion about what elements keep me coming back, we’ve reached the point in the journey where we talk about Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, which is my favorite of the prequel trilogy.
As I’ve stated before, the first Star Wars film I saw was The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. I was about 3½ years old, and I did NOT see it on opening day. That all changed with Return of the Jedi three years later, and after that I have made a point of seeing the very first showing of each Star Wars film upon its release. Except for this one. When Revenge of the Sith was released in 2005, I was in Longview, Texas, taking my mother to a doctor’s appointment. I didn’t see it until the next day. Thankfully, none of my friends spoiled it for me, except to say that it was much more enjoyable than the last two films. Since we have already discussed The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, I can say here that they are my least-liked entries into the saga. I do find myself returning to them, but not nearly as often as the other films, and without as much anticipation or enjoyment. My opinion of them is well-documented, so I won’t go into that here, but suffice it to say that I was hoping that Revenge of the Sith ended the saga (as we knew it then) on a high note. And it did not disappoint. This is the prequel that I return to the most, and there are several reasons for that: The opening sequence above (and eventually into) Coruscant, the overriding sense of dread that permeates the film, the final lightsaber duel between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan, and especially Ian McDiarmid’s performance as Emperor Palpatine. We will explore all of these in some depth next.
Star Wars is a film series known for dropping us right into the story, and Revenge of the Sith is no exception. The opening crawl starts with “War!” which got me very excited upon my first viewing. The moving camera pans across the top of a very large ship, with very little sound in the speakers. This gives way to a great reveal of the battle in orbit around Coruscant. We are met by laser fire, explosions, and Jedi starships battling alongside Republic fighters against Separatist ships. It is one of the most kinetic moments in any Star Wars films, and I sometimes put this section on just to enjoy it without continuing the film. The vulture droids that attack Anakin and Obi-Wan in their ships are a lot of fun, and the moment when the two Jedi crash-land in General Grevious’s ship, with Artoo popping himself out of the fighter while it is still in motion is really breathtaking. The slapstick sequence with Artoo and the Separatist droids is some welcome levity in an already-tense film. We get our first inkling of the darkness to come when Anakin beheads Count Dooku on the orders of Palpatine, and it is followed by a great reminder of just how good a pilot Anakin is as he manages to land half a ship with minimal damage to the surrounding areas. We’ll ignore that tower that he took out on the way in. This is a scene straight out of the adventure serials that the films are based on from George Lucas’s childhood, and it stands as one of the best openings of any film, Star Wars or not. As I was watching it the first time, I thought to myself “Yep, Lucas still knows how to open a movie, this is astounding.” My opinion has not changed.
With a title like Revenge of the Sith (which is sometimes shortened to “ROTS”), it makes sense that a sense of foreboding and dread would permeate the film. This impending darkness is masterfully orchestrated throughout the film in several ways. The pacing of the film seems to propel the story toward an inevitable conclusion that is never going to go well. It does slow down from time to time, but the overall tempo of the film is a rush to the climax, but without feeling like the film itself is rushed. It’s a credit to director and editor. Along with the pacing, there are several other components that contribute to this rueful tone, namely the color of the production design, the music, and Hayden Christensen’s performance. This film is steeped in deep reds and blacks, which is very fitting given these are colors often associated with anger, wrath, and evil. Palpatine’s office is regal but overbearing, replete with the deep reds I mentioned, and his costume consists almost entirely of dark, black robes, as does Anakin’s choice of clothing. We do get some light from Padme’s quarters and wardrobe, but it stands as an island of light in a sea of darkness. The film even ends on a lava planet, lit primarily by glowing molten rock, giving us an orange-red shade of fierce color that is inescapable. The performance that Anakin takes in with Palpatine in the opera house is likewise draped in these dark reds and blacks, despite the performance itself consisting of light blue and white light. The film seems to be cloaked in darkness, much like Palpatine’s true identity is cloaked from the Jedi. As the color palette of the film draws us into a deep, dark hole, the score likewise offers very little light. John Williams took this opportunity to explore many of the tones associated with the Imperials in the original trilogy, and this score dwells in tones that are designed to fill the listener with fear, dread, and hopelessness. Along with these darkened cues, Williams has incorporated an almost operatic mood for the final battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin, which we will discuss in more detail in a bit. It gives the entire film some weight, a feeling of import which is appropriate considering the stakes being decided, both on a personal and galactic level. Nowhere else are these stakes more evident than in the character of Anakin as he descends to the hopeless place that will allow him to accept the name Darth Vader near the end of the film. Hayden Christensen’s acting has been derided in some circles, but I have always felt he gave us a genuinely tragic character to mourn in this film and Attack of the Clones. As the film wears on, his eyes grow weary and hollow, as does his voice. It’s a carefully-modulated performance. While I DO wish that the scene in which he decides to turn completely to the Dark Side had not felt so rushed, I DO believe Christensen’s decision, especially when considered with the path that brought him to the decision. This is a man who feels he has no other choice, who feels the decision has already been made for him, and who reluctantly agrees to become the most feared individual in the entire galaxy. We CAN see the good in him, still, and it makes his final turn in Return of the Jedi seem even more believable.
If some have a hard time believing Hayden Christensen’s acting in the dramatic scenes, I would wager that NOBODY has any trouble buying that this character could use a laser sword the way we see him use it in the film. In many ways, the entire prequel trilogy built to the moment on Mustafar when Darth Vader and Obi-Wan finally cross swords for the first time. Like the opening battle/crash sequence, this duel is so masterfully orchestrated that I have no trouble believing that the rage and energy built up between these two old friends is enough to cause the explosion of lava that happens behind them when they first make contact with one another’s lightsabers. It is a beautiful and horrible moment in a beautifully horrible situation. From there, the fight just gets even more intense, as these two brothers fight their way across a river of lava, finding tenuous footing on passing rocks and droids. It is the single greatest lightsaber duel in the entire saga, and I would feel confident in saying that it will never be topped. Not only is this a triumph of technical accuracy, with Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor perfectly executing the fight choreography, it has an added layer of emotion that these two actors are able to convey as they dodge, parry, and attack. You can feel the passion that is being enflamed here, and if there is anything in this film that makes me stick with the film until the end, it is the knowledge that I’m going to be able to experience this fight yet again, and by the end I am frequently exhausted from just watching it. Add in the final, pitiful moment of Vader catching fire and the vitriol he spews with his “I HATE YOU,” and it is an emotional wringer that is difficult to recover from. This is what film is capable of, taking various elements and combining them to make the audience experience what the characters are feeling. Masterful filmmaking, to be sure.
Masterful filmmaking is always aided by masterful acting, and in Revenge of the Sith, we get one of the single greatest performances in the entire saga. Ian McDiarmid’s portrayal of Emperor Palpatine was worthy of an Oscar nomination, and stands as one of the greatest villainous turns in film history. It’s a skillfully-nuanced performance, encompassing attraction, repulsion, rage, and tenderness, none of which ever feels forced or insincere, which is an achievement considering the character himself is playing a role for a good portion of the film. I could point to several sequences in the film in which Mr. McDiarmid pulls the strings of his character, the strings of the other characters, and the strings of the audience itself, but the one that is truly astounding to me is the opera house scene. I cannot express enough how impressed I am with his acting here. He seduces Anakin, and almost seduces the audience, all without ever raising his voice or moving from his seated position. His retelling of the Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise is a cautionary tale, a carrot on the end of a stick, and a promise of power to Anakin all rolled into one deliciously devious monologue. It is some of the best dialogue in the saga, and McDiarmid’s delivery is so perfectly manipulative that I find myself wanting to spend more time with this old man to hear more stories and learn more of his experiences, his opinions, and his lessons. This requires an actor of the highest caliber, and Ian McDiarmid more than meets that lofty bar. It is performances like this one, and Alec Guinness in A New Hope, that attract the formidable actors that we now enjoy in our current generation of Star Wars films. However, regardless of the quality of the acting going forward, Ian McDiarmid as Senator-then-Emperor Palpatine will always be the gold standard for villainy and frightening manipulation in this galaxy or any other.
In 2005, we thought this was it, and I was ok with Star Wars going out this way. However, I was truly overjoyed at the news that new films were in the works, as this is a world that I never want to leave. This series will continue with The Force Awakens next month, and continue for as long as we have new Star Wars films coming out. As wonderful as the new films are, we truly would not have the foundation on which to build the new films if we didn’t have such a strong entry at the end of the prequel trilogy. From the electrifying opening sequence to the emotionally-charged final Jedi duel on Mustafar, we are in the thrall of a film that fills us with dread via color, sound, and performance, and we are transfixed by a master class in acting from Mr. Ian McDiarmid. These are the things that keep me coming back to Revenge of the Sith over and over and over again, and I have no doubt that I will continue to come back to it in the future.
What about you, my dear readers, what are the elements of Revenge of the Sith that speak to you, that bring you back time and again? I’d love to read about them in the comments.
Until next time,
May the Force of Others Be With Us All.
Margot and Archie say hi.
Jeff can be heard weekly on Assembly of Geeks (www.assemblyofgeeks.com) and on his own podcast network, MarvinDog Media (www.MarvinDogMedia.com) where he hosts The Pilot Episode, Talking Toys with Taylor and Jeff, and Bantha Banter: A Star Wars Chat Show. He is also co-host of Comics With Kenobi with fellow CWK blogger Matt Moore, on CoffeeWithKenobi.com, which you have already found if you’re reading this blog. You can contact Jeff at email@example.com.