Star Wars Retrospective: Revenge of the Sith

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This is an interesting one to have reached, because a lot of my own cultural zeitgeist understanding of Star Wars comes from this film in particular. It came out in 2005, and aligned with the peak of my own personal interest in Star Wars – or, rather, was responsible for the said peak in interest. Star Wars was able to have a constant presence in my life because of the buzz around this film; I collected the lightsabres in cereal boxes (still have the Anakin Skywalker one, actually), little Burger King toys, and, of course, the Panini Sticker Albums. Loved those sticker albums.

And of course, I was also looking forward to this one because it’s supposed to be the “good” prequel. By a lot of people it’s considered to be almost as good as some of the original trilogy; if you go by Rotten Tomato scores, it’s supposedly as good as Return of the Jedi. (They’re both at 79%, if you’re interested.) Now, that was interesting in and of itself, to see how closely my views would match the commonly accepted consensus… but frankly, I also just wanted to watch a movie that was just, like, good? After Attack of the Clones, and to a lesser extent The Phantom Menace, I was really sort of losing enthusiasm for these films. I was actually worried I didn’t like Star Wars anymore. Which would have been pretty shocking.

But, thankfully, Revenge of the Sith was actually genuinely pretty good. It was a real and significant improvement over its two predecessors, that’s got to be said. Right from the beginning, actually, it starts really well, with a really impressive opening sequence; an aerial space battle that has a wonderful visual feel to it, and still looks beautiful nearly ten years later. The CGI in general throughout this movie is typically pretty good, in fact, and the movie retains a nice visual feel throughout; in terms of the actual direction, it is markedly better than The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.

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As it happens, Revenge of the Sith does a pretty good job of picking up on and improving the issues that plagued the previous two movies. A flaw that I picked up on with both The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones was the run time; neither film was able to properly sustain their story for the full two and a half hours that they played for, and definitely started to drag on around the 90-minute mark. Revenge of the Sith was in fact much better paced than the prior prequel movies; it moves along surprisingly quickly (there were quite a few moments that I expected to happen later in the film than they actually did) and it manages to maintain a pretty high level of interest throughout. There’s never anything boring happening on screen, and that’s rather commendable; it’s a marked improvement over the previous movies, and a reasonable achievement in its own right.

The second improvement is the portrayal of Anakin Skywalker. Now, it wasn’t perfect, I’ve got to be upfront about that; I’ll be commenting on a few issues that I took with Hayden Christensen’s performance in a moment. But, for now, I think it’s worth acknowledging that he did a much better job in this film than in Attack of the Clones (where Anakin was, frankly, intolerable). He did a decent job of portraying an older, more experienced Anakin, and actually managed to maintain a commanding screen presence as ‘Darth Vader’. Christensen’s actual performance, after Anakin had turned to the dark side, had an impressive level of intensity to it, which I honestly didn’t think he’d be able to pull off, given his performance in Attack of the Clones.

In fact, Revenge of the Sith does a pretty good job of showing the sheer brutality of the eponymous revenge, but also emphasising the tragedy of Anakin’s fall. The massacre of the Padawans is actually quite distressing in some ways – a little detail that stood out to me is the fact that the young boy called Anakin by his name, “Master Skywalker”. Clearly the younglings knew him and trusted him… and then he kills them! It’s a fairly well presented sequence, with most of the violence relegated offscreen, and left implicit by the slow activation of the lightsabre. It’s a nice touch.

Similarly, the execution of Order 66 is really well presented; there’s an excellent musical score, playing over scenes of the Jedi being utterly decimated, all intercut with sequences of Yoda feeling their deaths through the force. I’d say it’s actually one of the best sequences in the prequel trilogy; it does a great job of conveying the scale of the destruction of the Jedi order, and quite how far they fell. Honestly, it’s quite an emotive sequence – effectively presented, and ultimately rather impactful.

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Admittedly, though, the movie is still flawed.

The principal flaw remains Anakin. In this instance, it’s the actual situation leading to his fall to the dark side. On paper, the fact that his love for Padme drives him to the dark side in the end is, actually, a pretty good idea; as with many of the good ideas in the prequels, though, the execution is lacking at best and fundamentally flawed at worst.

Anakin’s descent, and tragic fall, takes place too quickly; it should be far more gradual, giving us a depiction of an inexorable decline into darkness, rather than a ridiculous about heel turn. Throughout the whole movie, it’s essentially presented as Anakin going “eh I guess I’ll listen to Palpatine”, and then “huh that was kind of a bad idea”, until it finally becomes “sod it, I’m going to murder a bunch of 9 year olds”. Anakin comes across a naïve, confused… idiot. Too many of the choices he makes are dependent on his being too trusting of Palpatine (who straight up admits to being a Sith Lord) or just not really making any independent choices of his own. Essentially, Anakin spends a lot of this plot carrying around the Idiot Ball, as it were, and it means that when he eventually becomes Darth Vader, the whole transition is undercut significantly.

I was a little disappointed with how they handled Padme in this movie as well. It was nice to see her being a little more proactive, ish, but in the end she didn’t have a huge amount of impact on the narrative; her plotline in this movie was essentially just an extended Fridging. Her death – signposted from the beginning with Anakin’s visions – was only about Anakin’s angst, and her character arc in this movie was simply to die. I think there was a cut scene somewhere, at some stage, where her and Bail Organa start the rebellion… but given that’s not even in the finished movie, it must be sad, Padme (and Natalie Portman) was dealt a pretty poor hand across these three movies.

Dooku and Grievous are also pretty weak, as antagonists go. Neither of them really have the requisite amount of screentime to have any genuine impact; you would have been better off, I think, cutting Grievous and expanding the Dooku role. (Or… well, I actually have another idea which I think is even better. Follow me and check back later today for a post rewriting the prequel trilogy).

But, on the flip side, Palpatine is actually a rather impressive villain. Ian McDiarmid gives a really skilled performance; he’s definitely the best villain of the prequel trilogy, I’d say. The character is really effective, for the most part, and has a great screen presence. Admittedly, some of his impact is undercut by the script, and Anakin’s interactions with him, but we do get to see a rather manipulative, even Machiavellian, figure, which is an impressive move from Revenge of the Sith.

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The film’s denouement, with the final confrontation between Anakin and Obi-Wan, is actually fantastic. As a fight, it looks impressive – it’s well choreographed, and the CGI stands up well, making Mustafar an excellent setting for the climax of the movie – but it’s made much more effective by the fact that there is some emotional weight to it. We started the film with Anakin and Obi-Wan fighting side by side, and end it thusly, with the pair in a fight to the death. It does work quite well, even despite the aforementioned flaws with Anakin’s fall to the dark side.

Ewan McGregor, it’s worth noting, does some great work with these scenes. He’s was a little limited by the dialogue at times (it’s not great), but it does have to be stressed that his performance as Obi-Wan is one of the best things about this movie. I’d really like to see him appear as Obi-Wan again, actually; I’m sure with all the Anthology movies that are supposed to be coming out under the Star Wars brand, there’s room for an Obi-Wan Kenobi movies set between Episodes III and IV.

So, Revenge of the Sith, then. It is actually a genuinely entertaining and enjoyable movie; I don’t think that can – or should – be disputed. There’s lots of impressive little directorial flourishes (like Anakin’s rebirth as Darth Vader taking place inside the imperial symbol), and some genuinely clever and effective presentation of different sequences – like the execution of Order 66, or intercutting Anakin’s rebirth as Darth Vader with Padme giving birth to Luke and Leia. I do think George Lucas did a pretty good job of directing this movie (albeit perhaps not writing it) and it’s clear that he had learnt from mistakes made with the prior prequel movies.

I do think this film can get an 8/10, actually. I genuinely did enjoy it quite a lot. In many ways, though, it highlights the most fundamental flaws of the prequels; with a little more work, and a little more consideration, these three films could have been damn near perfect. They could have been the best films ever.

And the biggest shame is the fact that they weren’t.

Related:

Star Wars Retrospective

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Star Wars Retrospective: Attack of the Clones

star wars attack of the clones review logo episode ii george lucas prequel trilogy

I was watching an interview with Steven Moffat yesterday, where he was talking about the Time War, and why he thought it’d never be shown on camera – the version you see on screen could never live up to the version you’ve had in your head for all these years. Obviously, there’s a certain irony to that, but what was interesting to me was that he used the Clone Wars as an example.

You sit there thinking ‘wow, the Clone Wars, that sounds awesome’, and then you see it, and it’s all just bloody meetings!”

That was interesting to me though, anyway, because it highlighted the differences in how I’m watching the Prequels, and how a lot of other people would have seen them. I mean, I wasn’t born until a little before The Phantom Menace came out, and I definitely wouldn’t have started watching Star Wars until after Attack of the Clones had come out. I never had any grounding in these movies, or expectations that the prequels could let down.

In some ways, that’s akin to a point I’d touched on in my Phantom Menace retrospective, which I posted yesterday. But it’s particularly notable here, actually, and I think more worthy of comment, because it’s with this movie that the prequels really start to draw upon the iconography of the original trilogy. You have the Clone Wars, you have Owen and Beru Lars, you have Jango and Boba Fett, and so on and so forth. Moreso than The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones really is dependent upon the original trilogy.

And… well, in theory, that’s not actually such a bad thing. Drawing on something familiar, and presenting it in a different way, can be a great way to present an effective and compelling narrative – and it’s always exciting to get more information about the mysterious backstory from the originals.

Actually, to be honest, I think even in practice, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Flawed though the film was, the flaws didn’t come from the references to the lore of the original trilogy.

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Well, I say that, but that’s not strictly true. Because the biggest flaw with this film was Anakin Skywalker. This is not a new observation, nor a particularly original one. It’s a complaint I was very aware of going into the film, and actually assumed I wouldn’t really have a problem with – you know the internet, full of hyperbole. After all, I hadn’t found Jake Lloyd as Anakin to be particularly unbearable.

But Hayden Christensen as Anakin is The Literal Worst.

It’s difficult to say how much of it is down to his acting (a terribly wooden performance) and how much of it is down the writing (exceptionally bad dialogue, amongst other things), but it all comes together to create a character who is simply excruciating to watch. Anakin is a whiney, mopey teenager, who’s irritating at best and extremely aggravating at worst. Mostly, he’s boring – it’s very difficult to give a damn about anything he does on screen, because he is such a difficult character to actually like.

Weirdly, the other characters seem to act that way as well (with one exception, which I’ll get to in a moment). Obi-Wan and Anakin have a contentious relationship, to say the least; Obi-Wan doesn’t seem to actually like him, most of the time, and it’s clear enough that the rest of the council take a dim view of Anakin. Which makes sense, really, because he’s so irritating.

What’s worse, though, is that Anakin is exceptionally creepy towards Padme! That actually genuinely unnerves me. Their interactions together were just so deeply uncomfortable, and extremely poorly written. There’s just no natural progression to it whatsoever; we spend about half the movie watching Anakin be creepy and Padme feeling uncomfortable, and then it’s like a switch was flipped, and suddenly she’s okay with him being a creep. The whole thing is just distinctly uncomfortable in every way.

And that’s such a huge mistake! Anakin should be our hero here – we should really, really like him as a character. Frankly, he should be everyone’s favourite character… but he’s just so dislikable! It’s exceptionally poor.

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That’s just one problem, mind you. It’s far from the only one.

Like The Phantom Menace, this film is way too long. This is actually longer than The Phantom Menace though, and it’s even more painful to sit through it. I defended the CGI in The Phantom Menace, but that’s much harder to do with Attack of the Clones; it’s much more prominent in this movie, and somehow seems to have aged more poorly as well. As much as I still think we should credit George Lucas for pioneering this style of CGI in movies, Attack of the Clones really does show that it is genuinely overdone in some instances. It must have been a nightmare for the actors at times, actually, and it’s often very offputting – I’m pretty sure that there are several rooms in the movie that don’t even exist physically, let alone all the different characters who weren’t really there.

The villains are poor too – mostly Count Dooku, but the Separatists as a whole are weak. It’s because they’ve come essentially from nowhere, and then proceed to play a fairly limited role in proceedings; Christopher Lee is a great actor and all, but he has very little screentime, and there’s not exactly much character to Count Dooku at all. The whole plot is weak as well, actually – things just sort of happen, all the time. It’s not really a strict progression of cause to effect, more a string of unrelated incidents occurring – there’s no plot impetus or anything – which eventually results in a final confrontation.

And actually, speaking of the plot, there’s a huge gaping plot hole which actually annoys me in terms of how lazy it is.

When Obi-Wan goes to Kamino, he finds out that the Clone Army has been commissioned by a Jedi Master by the name of Sifo Dyas. This Jedi, it’s implied, is the fellow who erased Kamino from the Jedi Archives Data Bank. But none of this is ever addressed! Obi-Wan basically just rolls with it on Kamino, so do the Jedi Council when they find out, and then the Clones have become the army of the Republic – without anyone ever questioning their mysterious origins!

Sifo Dyas, of course, is a character we’ve never seen before. He died ten years ago – around the time of the Battle of Naboo. Are we supposed to think it’s Qui-Gonn Jinn? Possibly. Although maybe it’s actually Count Dooku, because he’s an ex-Jedi as well, and he’s definitely evil.

I googled it, and it turns out, Sifo Dyas is a typo. Originally, it was Sido Dyas, as in a corruption of “Sidious”, and the Sith Lord would have created the Army. Mace Windu would have explained there was never a Sido Dyas, and so on and so forth. Except at one point George Lucas accidentally wrote Sifo Dyas, preferred that name, and just sort of rolled with it. And clearly did a remarkably lazy job of rewriting the script! That’s the sort of thing that really annoys me, because it is honestly, genuinely, just laziness. (And George Lucas obviously did work really hard on these movies, I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise… but there are definite areas of sloppiness.)

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I wanted to like this one, really. I was expecting to like it – not love it, true, but at the very least, I figured I’d enjoy it. After all, I thought The Phantom Menace was alright, and Attack of the Clones does have a significantly better reputation than its predecessor… so why wouldn’t I enjoy it?

Because it’s just an awful film. I’m sorry, but it is. Yes, there are good elements – Ewan McGregor remains a wonderful Obi-Wan, and it’s rather cool to see all the lightsabre battles at the end (with Mace Windu’s purple lightsabre ooh ahh) – but as a whole, the film is just sort of awful.

And that’s a genuine shame, it really really is.

This film gets a 4/10 – it actually really isn’t as good as The Phantom Menace, to be honest. Though, as with Phantom, had it been an hour shorter, I may have been willing to bump up the score by one point.

Related:

Star Wars Retrospective

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