Breathe. Just breathe. That’s what I have to tell myself so I don’t pass out from excitement at the prospect of seeing The Last Jedi two weeks from now. Of course, that’s the first line from the teaser, so it’s an admittedly counter intuitive process. So is writing articles focused solely on Star Wars, yet here I am five articles in. Can’t stop now. #4: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Many people would say it’s foolish to rank a prequel so highly. To that I say who’s more foolish, the fool or the fool who-, actually, in this context that quote doesn’t really make sense. What does make sense, though, is putting Episode III at #4, and here’s why.
Across all eight entries thus far, Revenge of the Sith contains my absolute favorite performance with Ewan McGregor’s final one as Obi-Wan Kenobi. Everything about this performance is perfect. The film’s spectacular opening rescue of Chancellor Palpatine immediately reminds us of McGregor’s impeccable comedic timing. from his grumpy old man-like complaining of space combat, to his declaration that “We’re smarter than this!” upon capture. And I’m confident everyone reading this has, at one point or another, shared the “Hello there!” meme or GIF. McGregor also gives his best dramatic performance in the role here as well. To Anakin, he’s the perfect mentor. Over the years, Obi-Wan has begun to treat him as an equal. He calms him about his frustrations over the council, telling him “you’ve become a far greater Jedi than I could ever hope to be.” There is always an air of genuine sincerity from Obi-Wan, and McGregor always plays it up so well. The last act of the film has the character in a state we’ve yet to see; heartbreaking regret and frustration. Despite Kenobi’s absolute statement on absolutes being the butt of many a joke, the scenes between he and Anakin at the end are fantastic. As Anakin lay burning, it is pure, raw emotion coming from McGregor. It physically pains Obi-Wan to see what has become of his friend and McGregor’s performance makes this one of the most emotional scenes of the series.
Of course, the effectiveness of this scene, and many of Obi-Wan’s scenes, depends on the acting of his counterpart, Anakin, played again by Hayden Christensen, who is surprisingly not terrible. In fact, I’d go so far as to say he turns out a legitimately good performance across this film, often even being great. Anakin spends most of this film as a man being torn apart. He doesn’t want to disappoint his master, who he’s grown quite close to as a friend over the years. He doesn’t want to disappoint the Jedi, despite his growing frustration with them. He’s also become dangerously paranoid that he’ll lose his wife, Padme, due to visions he has of her dying in childbirth. This makes him all the more susceptible to the dark side, something Palpatine has been subtly tempting him with for years. All of this demands a lot from Christensen as an actor, and as I said earlier, I think he delivers. He completely reciprocates the friendship shown from McGregor, and even though their dialogue is oft maligned, he seems genuinely in love with Padme. He’s also able to do a great deal of acting without even speaking, with his facial expressions conveying everything we need to know. A scene in particular which finds him waiting at the window of the Jedi Council Chamber facing the Senate as Mace Windu leaves to arrest the man who may be his only hope of saving Padme features some excellent acting on the part of Christensen. Without a word spoken, Christensen fully conveys every emotion he’s experiencing, from sadness, remorse, regret, all the way to his final decision to leave. We know he’s doing something he knows he shouldn’t all from the look in his eyes as he leaves. His last scene with Obi-Wan is a mixed bag, but I maintain that nobody could have read these lines convincingly. However, despite some incredibly poor dialogue, Christensen is able to convince us Anakin feels betrayed by everyone in this moment. Padme, Obi-Wan, the entirety of the Jedi order. This is a man confused, scared, and angry, three things you do not want a person with his abilities to be. Anakin’s portion of his and Obi-Wan’s final exchange is equally heartbreaking as Obi-Wan’s, with Anakin almost pathetically trying to climb away from the river of lava, to no avail. Amidst the pleas from Obi-Wan and the lava searing his flesh, Anakin is still full of an anger focused entirely on Obi-Wan, shouting his hatred of him as he catches fire. Despite some rocky acting across the trilogy, I’ve come to enjoy Anakin as a character, though this was helped in a big way by watching through the Star Wars: The Clone Wars television series, which makes this last moment somewhat hard to watch.
Now we must talk about the man ultimately responsible for all of this, Palpatine, as played by Ian McDiarmid. Anyone who’s read the prior rankings knows how much I adore McDiarmid in the role, and this might be his most robust performance yet. He ranges from subtle and precise to exaggerated scene chewing. Yet, his performance is equally enjoyable from start to finish. It is during the futuristic opera house scene where Palpatine begins to manipulate Anakin in a way he hadn’t before. This is no longer planting seeds of doubt, this is dangling the power of the dark side in front of him by way of The Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise. Through the story, Anakin learns of a man who, through the dark side, was able to keep those he loved from dying. He was, however, unable to save himself as he was killed in his sleep by his apprentice. The brilliance of this scene is that, unknown to Anakin, it was Palpatine who had killed his master. This makes his line “Ironic. He could save others from death, but not himself” the equivalent of him verbally patting himself on the back. As we learned about the character in Episode VI, Palpatine is never in doubt of his own plan and almost always in a state of self-congratulations, and it’s no different here. After his attempted arrest by Mace Windu which leaves him “scarred and deformed” his performance makes a dramatic turn for the grandiose. The scene in which he boldly declares the creation of the new Galactic Empire is a highlight of the series. It’s such a beautiful culmination of everything he’s set in motion. The seemingly unending Clone Wars, the growing dissent toward the Jedi made only worse now by their “attempt on his life” and his now pathetic appearance making him appear more sympathetic. It all works to create an iconic moment. There’s less to say about his performance from here on because most of the subtly is all but gone, but it’s hard to overstate how enjoyable it is to watch McDiarmid cackle his way into becoming the Darth Sidious, or Emperor, we already knew him to be.
While the film does an excellent job in finding time to give its actors great character moments, it also finds time to give them some of the best action sequences of the series. One aspect of this film that receives near universal praise is its opening. We begin the film following a pair of single occupant fighter crafts, occupied by Obi-Wan and Anakin, as they fly across the top of a Republic Attack Cruiser, from its stern to its bow until they finally fly beneath the cruiser with the camera revealing a full scale space battle, the likes we’ve yet to see in Star Wars. This shot is one of the most breathtaking moments in the series and it continues on for another full minute as the camera gets us close to the action, following close behind these pilots flying in perfect unison. The cinematography here truly is spectacular, with the camera always fixed on these pilots, but fully revealing the geography of this battle in dynamic ways. The film maintains this momentum, with a battle between Kenobi and Anakin, and Vulture droids attempting to keep them from the Separatist flagship, currently holding the Chancellor captive. The actual rescue scene once aboard the flagship is oft criticized for being a bit bloated, but due to the unbridled amount of fun I have watching it, I can’t echo those criticisms. From Anakin and Obi-Wan physically fighting with the same kind of unison they fly with, R2 getting creative with oil and his thrusters, an epic duel with an equally epic end between Anakin and Dooku, a harrowing escape from a topsy turvy elevator shaft, and finally a crash landing on the air strips of Coruscant, this scene is far too fun and exciting for me to want to see even a moment cut. The film also manages to end as incredibly as it opened, at least in terms of action.
Ultimately, this film is about the final chapter of Anakin’s fall to the dark side, and the moment Obi-Wan confronts him leads to what I consider the greatest lightsaber duel of the series. Unlike Luke from the original trilogy, these are two incredibly skilled warriors trained for most of their lives in the art of lightsaber combat. The choreography is stunning, with every motion being just as graceful as it is fierce. The fight moves from the control rooms of Mustafar, to decks overlooking rivers of lava, to actually hovering on platforms being taken adrift across those very rivers. Yet, despite the constantly growing and changing landscape of the battle, we remain locked in and focused on these characters. It’s also intercut with an equally epic duel between Yoda and Darth Sidious that finds its way out into the enormous Senate Chamber, where the hovering seating arrangements we’ve grown familiar with are hurled at each other with the force. It all works together to create arguably the greatest climax of the series.
Fortunately, there are some other great moments of action set between these two sequences that bookend the film. In what could possibly be Lucas apologizing for Ewoks, we finally are given a scene on Kashyyyk with an army of Wookiees fending off an invading Separatist army, with the aid of Yoda. Wookiee’s swing from vines that overhang the beachfront that sees giant, rolling Separatist tanks bursting from its waters and onto its shores. It’s shot beautifully, and though its comprised almost entirely through computer generated means, looks genuinely tangible and gritty. We are also treated to a chase and subsequent duel between Kenobi and the droid army general: Grievous. The chase doesn’t last long, but between Kenobi’s beaked, reptilian steed, and Grievous’ armed, wheel shaped vehicle, it’s wholly unique looking and fun to watch. The duel that follows is also short-lived, but Lucas manages to squeeze out some iconic shots from it and follows it up with a full scale assault from the Clone Army in a scene reminiscent of Episode II’s final act.
What helps elevate the action here far above the previous entries is that Lucas seems to integrate CGI into his action far better this time around, and the effects in general have simply improved since the release of Episode II. There’s a physical quality here that was lacking before. Texture has been greatly improved, leaving things looking less plastic and shiny looking as they once did. Industrial Lights and Magic, Lucas’ VFX studio, were also able to bring a sense of weight to fully CGI creations. A lack of weight is often an issue in the absence of practical effects, so to make objects like the single tread tanks or Spider Walkers look and feel heavy and physical is admirable. There also appears to be more of a use of practical locations and sets, so the computer generated portions of the image looks less noticeable now that it’s being integrated into the scene, as opposed to being the scene itself.
While the action may very well be a series highlight, where this film succeeds most admirably is in its emotional content. I find this to be, by far, the most emotionally effective entry in the series and I say that without any hesitation. The last conversation Obi-Wan and Anakin have before their final confrontation is heartbreakingly tragic upon re-watch. Kenobi desperately wants the best for Anakin and wants the council to see him the way he does. In return, Anakin desperately wants to be the man Kenobi sees in him, but is being torn in multiple directions emotionally and, in some way, knows he can’t. The aforementioned scene of Anakin at the window is unlike anything else in the series. The amount of dread mixed with sorrow in that scene is palpable. The amount of worry and genuine sadness in Padme’s eyes, juxtaposed with a tearful Anakin about to do something he knows in his heart is wrong is a level of maturity in storytelling the film should be immensely proud of.
It also contains what I consider to be the most emotionally powerful scene of the series; the execution of Order 66. Seeing the Jedi, our heroes, systematically murdered by the army they’ve fought side by side with, all to the most haunting track Williams, who is providing some of his most impressive work to date with this film, has ever scored brings a level of darkness and despair the series is not used to. The amount of emotional anguish Yoda experiences during this moment is nearly enough to knock him off his feet, and seeing that often brings a tear to my eye. The animators earned huge amount of praise for the level of confusion and emotional turmoil they were able to bring to Yoda’s face. With all of this being concluded with Obi-Wan being confronted by the betrayal of his best friend, this film is an emotional rollercoaster.
With everything previously mentioned working so spectacularly well, the fact that this film is as flawed as it is is a tragedy so severe the Jedi might not even tell you about it. Unfortunately, I have to, so lets get into it.
What doesn’t work:
As was the case with the first two prequels, acting finds itself on this side of the article. This time, however, I shift most of the blame from any ineptitude on the part of the actors and onto Lucas’ skill, or lack thereof, as a writer and character director. Lines like “Love can’t save you, Padme. Only my new powers can!” and “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” should never find their way onto even a rough draft, let alone a final product. No amount of acting chops can salvage lines like these, because that’s simply not how humans talk. There’s also problems like certain exchanges between Anakin and Padme being less romantic than they are awkward or Obi-Wan thoroughly underacting upon discovering footage of Anakin slaughtering children and again when recounting the events to Padme. Lucas’ problem here seems to be that he has a clear idea of what he wants to be accomplished within certain scenes, but is totally unaware of how to convince the audience of what he sees in his head. Lucas need not be convinced of Obi-Wan’s horror as he sees what Anakin has done, because he is the one writing the character and has access to their thoughts and feelings that may not actually be in the script and knows for a fact that Obi-Wan indeed is horrified. However, because of his lack of emphasizing said horror when directing McGregor, there’s a clear disconnect between what Lucas thinks the scene is accomplishing and what the scene is actually showing us. So, instead of what should have been horror, we get mild surprise and annoyance.
To get back to the script, even when the direction is eliciting a good performance, the performance means very little when the audience doesn’t buy the line itself. By the time of Episode III’s production, Natalie Portman had become a genuinely great actress, however, no amount of her acting “faster and more intense” can make lines like “Anakin, you’re breaking my heart!” in any way sufferable.
The screenplay is a bit problematic even outside of the actual dialogue. While there are aspects of this film’s screenplay that are often derided for being “bloated” that I will defend, I won’t defend them all. One of the biggest problems the film has is that the first half feels somewhat aimless. Were you watching the film for the first time and paused it 50 minutes in to answer the question “what is this movie about?” I’m not sure there really is an answer provided yet. There are continuing plot points from the previous films to be noticed, such as Anakin’s continued prophetic visions that cause his paranoia, as well as Palpatine’s continued manipulation, but the film has yet to actually introduce the plot point or driving force of this specific film. It isn’t really until Anakin is confronted by Palpatine and discovers that he’s the Sith Lord before the actual meat of this story begins. This happens at the one hour mark in a film that’s two hours and twenty minutes. It’s almost inaccurate to say the story shifted or pivoted from being about this to being about that during this particular scene. It’s more like the story had finally begun. So, while I have a very genuine love and appreciation for a multitude of aspects of the film’s first half, I cannot help but agree with criticisms that label it as aimless.
Lastly, one aspect of sequels and prequels that I am likely much harder on that most is continuity. If a film makes the deliberate choice to exist in the same timeline and continuity of other existing films, then it has to accept the film and any baggage that comes with it. The original trilogy tells us that there was once a Republic, but that it was replaced by the now existing Empire. That the Jedi Order was once great, but was systematically wiped out. That Darth Vader was once Obi-Wan’s pupil, but was seduced by the dark side. Episode III relies on the audience knowing these things in order to reach its full potential of effectiveness. It needs those films to be true, because their existence is what gives this film its meaning. However, this also means you can’t cherry pick what you want to be canon. Those films have to exist in their entirety, because that’s what this film is building toward. Because of this, I will consider any contradictory statement or event a flaw of this film. The original trilogy set the parameters with which the prequels can operate within, and any breaking of that is the film refusing to play by the rules the franchise it’s a part of made up. So, when Return of the Jedi says Leia knew her real mother and that she died when she was a young girl, but Revenge of the Sith has Padme dying immediately following child birth, that’s a problem. Priority is given to Episode VI so when the two contradict, the fault is on Episode III. The same goes for Ob-Wan having no remembrance of R2-D2 or C-3PO in A New Hope. In those cases, and other similar ones, there was no attempt to reconcile what the franchise has already confirmed to be true, and what this new film is saying to be true, and that is problematic storytelling. Other things happen in this film that don’t necessarily contradict what came before, but feel like an after thought or that they were tacked on. An example would be the canonical discovery of Force Ghosts. This is a concept that changes everything. Everything the Jedi thought they knew about death must be called into question upon this discovery. Yet, the film seems to tack it on at the end, robbing it of the importance it should’ve been given, by having Yoda casually mention it to Obi-Wan who receives it in an equally casual way.
Personally, I enjoy this film on the same level I enjoy my top three. These characters are just as representative of Star Wars as any other, and the action is among the best of the series. It also elicits an emotional response from me in a way the others don’t. I can’t, however, in light of the films issues rank it as an equal with the next three, so it lands firmly at my number four spot.
Well, now we’re getting into the top three. Full disclosure, the order of the top three was still up in the air at the outset of writing this series, and it wasn’t until recently that they were finally set in stone. This means ranking from here on out is far less significant than before, as I view the next three as all nearly perfect films, and subjective preference is at play here more so than any other point in this list. I look forward to writing articles with an almost nonexistent amount of negativity. See you then.