This was the one we’ve all been waiting for.
That’s what I remember thinking as I stood in line for the opening night of Revenge of the Sith, which was released 10 years ago this week. The movie theater in the mall that night was swarmed with Star Wars fans, some dressed as Darth Maul or Jedi Anakin, their online conversations all fixated on a very specific set of new hopes: That with Sith, the prequel trilogy would finally make sense. That we’d at last understand how Anakin transformed from a towheaded pod racer into the galaxy’s greatest villain. And, perhaps most importantly, that after the back-to-back disappointments The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones — two dull, CGI-clogged eyesores — we were finally getting a Star Wars movie worthy of its predecessors. After all, the advance reviews on Sith hinted that this would be the movie to remind us why we loved Star Wars in the first place.
The idea that Revenge of the Sith is “the good prequel” still holds sway over fans. With all of the hate lashed out at George Lucas over the years, and all of director J.J. Abrams’s talk about not repeating the errors of the prequels, we forget how badly everyone wanted to love those movies. Diehard Star Wars fans have always looked past Jar Jar Binks and fixated on the fleeting prequel moments that made them feel the Force: the lightsaber battle between Darth Maul, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jin in The Phantom Menace, the Jedi facing off against the battle droids on Geonosis in Attack of the Clones. By most accounts, the third act of Revenge of the Sith is George Lucas’s finest work on the prequels. Some fans have gone further, making a case that Revenge of the Sith is a more accomplished film than its original-trilogy counterpart, Return of the Jedi.
For my part, I’ve had no desire to revisit the prequels since I first saw them in theaters. But now that a decade has passed, and a new Star Wars film lies on the horizon, it seems like the right time to take another look at Revenge of the Sith. This time, I watched it without first screening The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones to answer the question: Judged strictly on its own merits, is Revenge of the Sith a good movie?
Fundamentally, Lucas’s third and final Star Wars prequel is the story of how a good man turns evil. These days, our most immediate reference point for this arc is Breaking Bad, which masterfully depicted a mundane man’s descent into darkness. Ten years ago, however, the touchstone for this kind of story would have been The Godfather — a movie that Lucas actually worked on, as a favor to his friend Francis Ford Coppola. In fact, the slaughter of the Jedi leaders in Return of the Sith appears to be a direct homage to the killing of the mafia dons during The Godfather’s baptism scene.
It’s amazing, then, how little Lucas learned about story and character from The Godfather. At the beginning of Revenge of the Sith, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) is supposed to be a good man with conflicted loyalties. He’s a sworn Jedi, but he’s frustrated that he must serve so many masters, since he has been prophesied as “the chosen one” who will bring balance to the universe. Mostly, he’s an impetuous young man, craving independence and identity. Michael Corleone at the beginning of The Godfather is also a young man trying to find his own way, and his transformation into a hardened criminal happens gradually, until a dozen small choices push him past a point of no return.
Revenge of the Sith robs us of that journey. In the first twenty minutes of the movie, we see Anakin do something unconscionable: He defeats the traitor Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) in a lightsaber battle, incapacitates him by cutting off his hands — and then, at the urging of secretly-evil Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), kills him in cold blood. “I shouldn’t have done that. It’s not the Jedi way,” Anakin says afterwards, with as much emotion as if he’d ordered he wrong sandwich. He knows he shouldn’t have killed a defenseless man because his mentor Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) wouldn’t like it, but there’s no conviction behind his words. Nor does he defend the murder, which he committed at Palpatine’s request, and not as a spontaneous, what-have-I-done act of passion. In other words, Anakin appears to have no strong feelings about killing Count Dooku either way. And that’s a problem. How can we mourn the loss of a man’s soul when he has so little of it to begin with?
Hayden Christensen’s performance is so wooden, it’s the closest thing this movie has to a practical effect. But it’s not entirely his fault that Anakin is a complete cipher. The scenes that are supposed to humanize and motivate him are those with his pregnant wife Padme (Natalie Portman), and they are possibly the clunkiest moments of Lucas’s directorial career. The star-crossed lovers barely look at one another, let alone touch each other, as they recite dialogue that basically consists of repeating each other’s sentences. (Padme: “Something wonderful has happened. Ani, I’m pregnant.” Anakin: “That’s wonderful.”)
In the context of the movie, it is Anakin’s love for Padme — and his fear that she’ll die in childbirth, which he saw in a vision — that turns him to the Dark Side. But their romance doesn’t affect his character at all, besides making him crave the power to end death. Unlike, say, Han Solo’s love for Princess Leia, which transforms Han into a more loyal and compassionate person, Anakin’s relationship with Padme doesn’t stop him from killing a room full of Jedi children. (Incidentally, I still can’t believe that scene is in the movie.)
It’s hard to make a case for Revenge of the Sith being a good movie when the main character has so little resonance. For most of the film, he’s like a puppet, allowing his strings to be pulled by whichever charismatic leader happens to be in the room. In the third act, when Anakin turns to the Dark Side and becomes a mass murderer, the radical transformation seems abrupt and bizarre — yet the movie begins to kick into gear, because finally, Anakin has made a decision with real consequences.
If Revenge of the Sith has a saving grace, it’s that the end of the movie is much better than the beginning. From both a visual and a story standpoint, the first two thirds of Revenge of the Sith are cluttered and unfocused. During battle sequences, the screen is so dense with CG background creatures and spaceships that I want to brush them away like gnats. Meanwhile, the story of the Rebellion unfolds in tedious walk-and-talks between characters, with so much exposition and so little action that it’s easy to forget whose side we’re supposed to be on.
But when Chancellor Palpatine reveals that he’s evil, and orders the assassination of the Jedi leaders, the story finally clicks. At the same time, the movie starts to shed some of its CG excess (though Obi-Wan does escape his own assassination attempt on the back of a creature that’s as real-looking as Pete’s Dragon). It all builds to the best sequence in the prequel trilogy: A lightsaber battle between Anakin and his mentor Obi-Wan on a volcano, intercut with a showdown between Yoda and Emperor Palpatine in the empty Senate. For all of the elaborate world-building in these films, their biggest and most thrilling moment involves just four characters.
If only the movie ended on that high note! After the battle, Anakin — his limbs severed by Obi-Wan’s lightsaber, his body burnt by volcanic fire — is fitted with his familiar Darth Vader armor for the first time. Meanwhile, Padme gives birth to twins Luke and Leia, then dies for “no medical reason,” according to the hospital droid. (If her body shuts down, isn’t that a medical reason? What kind of trained medical robot says “Well, she’s healthy, she’s just dying?”) Watching the Vader suit click together like a Lego set is undeniably cool. But just as we’re thrilling to the sound of James Earl Jones’s voice coming out of the mask, we’re hit with the dumbest moment in the film: Anakin learns that Padme is dead, lurches from his restraints like Frankenstein, and shouts, “Noooo!” to the heavens.
Yes, it’s a callback to Empire Strikes Back — I get it. It’s also a totally disjointed moment of melodrama that doesn’t connect to anything else in the prequel trilogy. And it makes me angry. Of all the times to have Anakin show some kind of feeling, that’s the one George Lucas picks?
Re-watching this film, I felt that it was flawed in the same way as Vader himself: It’s more machine than man, all plot machinations and splashy effects with too little human emotion. That’s not to say there aren’t bright spots. Ewan McGregor is the big highlight here, making Obi-Wan a fully realized character even when the script fails him. (He has the original Star Wars cast’s gift for making lines like “You won’t get away this time, Dooku!” seem organic.) I continue to find the Yoda scenes affecting, though I prefer the Muppet incarnation. And some of the design elements, beneath all the CGI flotsam and jetsam, are stunning — particularly the Galactic Senate, a spiral of floating pods that looks at first glance like something out of Metropolis.
Even so, this movie doesn’t touch Return of the Jedi for me. Return of the Jedi packs more genuine suspense, action, and character-building into its first thirty minutes than Revenge of the Sith offers in two-and-a-half hours. But I know that many will disagree. Critics mostly praised Revenge of the Sith in 2005, with both Variety’s Todd McCarthy and Premiere’s Glenn Kenny calling it the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back. There were dissenters: The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane famously declared that Revenge of the Sith was better than the first two prequels, “but only in the same way that dying from natural causes is preferable to crucifixion.” Even with the passage of time, the Jedi-versus-Sith debate continues on film sites and Star Wars message boards.
I suspect that all the love for Revenge of the Sith has to do less with the film itself, and more with what it brought to the Star Wars franchise: A darkness that made it truly the first Star Wars movie for adults. Grown-up fans of these particular kids’ movies used to take a lot of flack, and perhaps all that complicated plotting and gratuitous killing validated the Star Wars universe as something children couldn’t fully appreciate.
Or maybe I’m wrong, and it just comes down to people loving Darth Vader. In a way, Revenge of the Sith was the predecessor of the dark superhero origin story that gained popularity with The Dark Knight in 2008. We expect our franchise movies to be bleaker and more adult now than we did ten years ago, and Sith sent us down that road.
When I think back to the first time I saw the movie, though, what I remember is the audience arriving at the mall in costume, cheering when Yoda turned his lightsaber on Emperor Palpatine, and gasping at the appearance of the Darth Vader mask. Even the darkest, most adult Star Wars movie managed — for a few moments — to make its audience feel like kids again. And if J.J. Abrams takes anything away from Revenge of the Sith, I hope it’s that.