By 2005, Star Wars was back in our lives. Since the release of the Special Edition versions of the original trilogy in 1997, the saga had been a recurring presence on our silver screens every couple of years, with new material emerging on our screens in 1999 with the long-awaited release of The Phantom Menace.
The first prequel in the Star Wars series has since become a byword for a film which is massively hyped but subsequently a disappointment, and the film has remained a somewhat controversial one in the years since its release.
Instead of immediately finding a way to course correct, 2002’s Attack of the Clones was an even more divisive instalment, and the intervening years has since seen fans and critics debate which of the first two prequels are the weakest, culminating in a Simpsons episode in which Lenny and Carl have a lightsaber duel over which one was the biggest disappointment.
By 2005, the Star Wars train was ready to roll again, and the prequels had become a steady presence in multiplexes every three years, a remarkably different period of time when one was expected to wait several years for the next production from a beloved movie franchise, compared to today when, with the emergence of shared cinematic universes, we get the next instalments within a year, a facet that would be repeated when Disney purchased Lucasfilm and got the ball rolling with one new Star Wars film per year.
Despite the controversies over the first two prequels in the series, the hype train duly arrived as it always did come in the lead up to May 19th of 2005 when Revenge of the Sith was set to be unleashed onto movie theatres worldwide. Everyone agreed that the title was much better than the first two prequels, a good omen in everyone’s eyes, and the fact that the events of this particular movie was going to be the most direct to lead into Episode IV, aka the very first movie, made it an even more exciting cinematic event, even if there was weariness around the famed creator of the saga, George Lucas, and his ability to craft good dialogue and story.
There was no doubt that the first two prequels were dazzling productions, with wonderful set pieces and action sequences, some of which, like those in Attack of the Clones, ranked as some of the best in the series, but things were badly let down by clunky dialogue and plotting that left a lot to be desired, reaching its “zenith” when Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) imparts wisdom on why he doesn’t like sand.
With that in mind, Revenge of the Sith had a lot to prove and, it probably doesn’t say much in a way that it ended up being the best of the prequel trilogy by some margin.
There are still moments dotted throughout where it’s clear Lucas still has an issue with crafting dialogue and or being able to elicit a good performance from his actors, but things do feel inherently better and the film has more to offer outside of its set pieces.
By the time that Revenge of the Sith began production, Lucas had become a filmmaker who relied on shooting film digitally as opposed to film, a change that had taken hold over the course of the prequel trilogy; a small number of scenes had been shot with digital cameras on The Phantom Menace, but by Attack of the Clones everything had gone digital with the film having less of the beautifully grainy quality of film and more of a sanitised, clean look, almost sterile, complete with a large number of scenes shot using green screens as opposed to physical sets.
Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen and Samuel L. Jackson would return in front of the camera, as would Ian McDiarmid as Emperor Palpatine, finally unleashing a brilliantly over the top performance that dominates the second half of the film.
Coming four years after 9/11, many couldn’t help but pick up a touch to the story that seemed inspired by the foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration, but this would only continue the series bringing real-life war narratives into its stories, as evidenced by the Vietnam metaphors that ran throughout the original trilogy, a not very surprising development given that Lucas was originally going to direct Apocalypse Now for Francis Coppola and American Zoetrope.
Where the original trilogy had a darker middle act in between the more fairy tale feeling running through the first two movies (or Episodes IV and VI if we’re being specific), Revenge of the Sith is an unapologetically dark ending for the prequel trilogy, the dark before the light of A New Hope in Episode IV. While Return of the Jedi could be seen as a fantasy version of the Vietnam conflict (a technologically advanced army is defeated by an army that is considerably less so, although more cuddly since we’re talking Ewoks here), it’s an interesting counter to see the final part of this trilogy embrace the darker feeling enveloping the real world post-9/11 where the original trilogy used the Vietnam references to essentially deliver, in most people’s eyes, an extended teddy bear commercial.
Anakin Skywalker’s descent into darkness takes hold in the second half of the movie very completely and the film is in some respects one of the darkest summer blockbusters to be released. Not for nothing, the film would be the first to receive a PG-13 rating in the US and a 12A rating in the UK, something that would follow through into the more recent episodes and Star Wars Anthology instalments, even though one could argue that the more recent movies haven’t really dared to follow this one into the realm of its dark, tragic overtones.
Revenge of the Sith came out in the same summer as Steven Spielberg’s version of War of the Worlds. and while most summers featuring competing Lucas and Spielberg projects would be an excuse to get out the popcorn and have a great time, it was interesting to see the two auteurs responsible for the summer blockbuster be unafraid to venture into darker areas and embrace the more despairing feeling enveloping the world after the terrorist attacks of September 11th and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that polarised political opinion and dominated news cycles. Not for nothing did the imagery in Spielberg’s movie evoke the imagery of that fateful day in September as opposed to the giddy patriotism of Independence Day, while the Emperor invoking controversial and deadly political manoeuvre felt like the actions of the then current President, although if anything feels even more relevant with the current administration.
While McDiarmid, McGregor, and Portman delivered performances most agreed were excellent, the latter actually feeling as if she could deliver more beyond the monotone delivery of her previous work on the series, most of the criticism was left to be levelled as Christensen, which is somewhat unfair in that he actually does deliver a more subtle and nuanced performance here than he was directed to last time, and at the very least doesn’t spend time intoning about why sand is so hateful.
In fact, both Portman and Christensen sell the doomed romance between Padme and Anakin very well, probably more so than Lucas is wanting them to do with his words and direction. Lucas has never been the best actor’s director in the world it seems, which sometimes comes as a surprise given that his second credited work as a director, American Graffiti, is a very warm film, as is the first Star Wars movie.
Seemingly since the prequels made their way into movie theatres, there is a feeling, not unwarranted, that Lucas had lost touch on how to handle actors and bring out good performances from them, but there’s a feeling that it has taken three films to get to a point where he can do it, or somewhat contrarily, that his actors are just doing their thing regardless of his infamous “faster, more intense” school of direction.
Filmed in Australia, the second, and last to date, in the series to do so, the film delivers the goods in a way that the two previous prequels had failed to do so outside of its visual razzle-dazzle. Where The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones almost had to rely on John Williams’ scores to make one believe that the film was better than it actually was, here everything does come together more.
There are some clunky moments dotted throughout; McGregor’s line about Anakin having killed younglings is unintentionally hilarious, while the reveal of Anakin in the Darth Vader costume looks set to be the best moment in the entire series, but is somewhat deflated by the infamous line of “NO ” that comes right after.
There are also moments that feel as if they still struggle to fit in with the rest of the continuity, most infamously Leia proclaiming to remember her birth mother in Return of the Jedi and yet, here it’s shown that Padme dies mere seconds after giving birth to her, which makes one wonder how Leia could remember her after only seeing her for mere seconds after being delivered into the world.
Thankfully the complaints are mostly minor; the film fills in other gaps superbly, such as the final lightsaber duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin where the latter is burned so badly he needs the Vader suit to survive, while the film finally delivers the revelation that C-3P0 and R2-D2 had their memories wiped, and, as always, John Williams’ score is epic, gorgeous and brilliant beyond words.
The final scene of the film is a beautiful call back to one of the most intimate and moving moments from A New Hope, fitting really, as it functions as a sunset on Star Wars as we knew it before Disney bought Lucasfilm.
The last film in the series to feature Lucas as director and writer, when the series returned to our screens ten years later it would be with a new creative team and with the notable absence of the 20th Century Fox fanfare, something that seemed unthinkable at one point.
As Lucas’s last direct involvement in the franchise he birthed, it’s not the worst. In fact, it’s all rather good and daring. Yes, it still has its moment of clunkiness, mixed in with moments that can take the breath away, but it never feels as flawed or as problematic as before, and for daring to go as dark as it does, especially for what could have been the last time we’d see Star Wars on the big screen, it deserves a lot of credit.