How 'Revenge of the Sith' Almost Broke 'Star Wars'
Star Wars: Episode III - The Revenge of the Sith is a film at war with itself. Director and co-writer George Lucas delivered his capper to the prequel trilogy 15 years ago on May 19, 2005, to much deserved fanfare as audiences were able to see the final, tragic turns Anakin (Hayden Christensen) would take on his way to becoming Darth Vader and taking his place on the Dark Side. At the time of its release, audiences were on the verge of obsessive behavior around the film, thanks to an inescapable marketing campaign and the buzz of early first screenings. That excitement had fans leaving theaters claiming Revenge of the Sith was the best of the creatively disappointing prequel trilogy or one of the best Star Wars movies ever. (Of those two positions, the former has not held up over the last decade and a half).
In hindsight, and long after the rush of opening night has faded, Sith is arguably the movie that broke Star Wars. Like the other two prequels, it suffers from clunky narrative choices and problematic character drama that the original trilogy does not, choices that are seemingly features and not bugs of Lucas’ emotionally flat prequel experiment. Sith does many things differentlt than Luke, Han and Leia’s movies, but none of them better — forcing the franchise into a deep carbonite freeze until Disney bought Lucasfilm and went on to release The Force Awakens in 2015.
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Before Menace and after Return of the Jedi, fans spent the better part of 20 years waiting for more big-screen stories from that galaxy far, far away — stories that would backfill into A New Hope and deliver on two decades worth of expectations. But unfortunately, none of the prequels were as good as the ones fans imagined for 16 years. Ironically, that creative spark that fills every frame of Lucas’ first Star Wars movie feels largely absent from the prequels — especially in Sith. A large chunk of the blame there could be pinned on the prequels’ reliance on then-pioneering digital innovations and CG instead of the analog tangibleness of creature and model effects that were staples of the original films. The obvious bluescreen set extensions and scenes made out of ones and zeroes made the very flesh and blood actors feel as artificial as the pixels surrounding them.
Which is a shame, especially as this was the chapter intended to pack the most emotional punch: the one that finally pitted Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) against padawan and friend Anakin Skywalker. Their epic lightsaber battle on Mustafar should, on paper, have been rivaled only by the emotional drama and betrayal that ignited their Jedi weapons to begin with. Instead, one of the most tragic chapters of the saga is undone largely by flat or wooden performances servicing an over-reliance of CG eye candy (that final battle plays out like confidently executed pre-viz stitched together instead of a riveting, tension-building set piece). Despite seemingly having finally, comfortably settled into the role and making it his own, McGregor feels especially lost, or acting in a different film; he seems to be overcompensating for what the script denied him: something worth playing.
The original trilogy is largely character-driven blockbuster storytelling at its finest. Sure, we never get to see Luke — a farm boy with dreams of flying X-Wings — react the way real human beings would to not only seeing his dream come true, but realizing it while saving the galaxy from the Empire and their Death Star. But we do relate to his search to be something more, and, eventually, the struggle to figure how to master and accept what that new path has in store — with all the action and cool space stuff built on the backs of insanely likable and relatable characters. The prequels, on the other hand, are plot first, character distant second, the movie equivalent of Wookieepedia entries brought to life on a Hollywood blockbuster budget. The characters are largely brand new, and that’s fine, but they lack the inner life of their predecessors. In the original trilogy, Han, Leia and Luke had distinct ways of speaking and interacting with one another; they stood out and felt fully realized. Sith and the prequels in general introduce us to two trilogies' worth of new faces that are distinguished less by their unique personalities and more by, um, the color of their lightsaber. Or outfit. Their dialogue is easily interchangeable; any one of them could say the other’s lines (save for Yoda, obviously). The lack of signature characters leaves the execution falling far short of successful; even Anakin and Obi-Wan — the beating heart of the film — feel displaced in the action scenes they appear in, scenes that seem to favor the shiny new CG tools used to make them versus investing in characters that make those scenes worth caring about.
While consistent, emotionally honest storytelling isn’t the franchise’s strongest suit, Sith appears to especially struggle with delivering that which, on paper, feels like the movie most likely to deliver on Lucas’ grand, Shakespearean-level tragedy narrative that started with, um, the Trade Federation’s shipping practices and culminated with one friend forced into war with another so the former can save the galaxy the latter may destroy. That struggle resonates largely on a surface level, which makes its attempts to dig deeper feel all the more jarring, and, at times, disturbing. Back to that Mustafar fight; in one slash of his lightsaber, Obi-Wan reduces Anakin to a legless stump with one arm. He maims his “brother” and stands on the molten shores of a lava river as what’s left of Anakin catches fire and burns the man alive. As Obi-Wan watches. (He could use the Force to put the flames out, but, naw.)
In the context of Sith as a standalone narrative, this choice of Obi-Wan’s feels highly problematic. Behaving in ways you loathe in your enemy does not make you a hero. Though when taking into account how this plays out and connects to the original trilogy, as Better Call Saul writer Gennifer Hutchison wisely pointed out to me on Twitter: “But after this, [Kenobi] isolates for 20 years. And when he faces Anakin again, he refuses to kill him. That’s his character arc.” That’s one of the few narrative decisions that resonates dramatically on par with the best of the original films.
And the best of those films often correlate to a seemingly effortless marriage between innovation and execution, extraordinary circumstances with big emotional stakes and humor, grounded by relatable, likable characters. Everyone wanted to be Han Solo. Or Leia. Or Luke. Or Chewie. They would role-play the parts or get crazy immersed in the action figures. Sith and the rest of the prequels sorely lack the dynamic characters that inspire such enthusiastic hero worship, in ways that leave us cold or worse, wishing we never got to see the movie in George Lucas’ head and just kept replaying the one in ours.
Finding ways to innovate and push the story forward in new and exciting ways, while still retaining some tether to what came before that fans love, is the challenge facing the franchise now. This tug-of-war between new and similar is evidenced in the final three films in the Skywalker Saga, especially in the two helmed and co-scripted by J.J. Abrams. Nostalgia porn can prove very lucrative, as we saw with the record-breaking success of 2015’s The Force Awakens. But judging by the reaction of audiences and critics to 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker, the future of the franchise seemingly can no longer rely on reaching back into and exploring facets of its past.
Revenge of the Sith is a cautionary tale, a movie that had to serve as a bridge between the other prequels and A New Hope. It's a movie torn between telling a satisfying story within its own run time, on its own terms, and connecting that story satisfyingly to threads in three other films. Ultimately, its reach exceeds its grasp — but its ambitious attempt is an inspiring one. For whatever Star Wars future holds, looking back at this problematic chapter in history and its pitfalls as a means to avoid a repeat of them can only help bring a balance to the movies they sorely need. To tell a movie divorced from the Skywalker Saga’s well-tread narratives and one that makes you feel like you did when you first saw A New Hope. To find that sweet spot between what came before and where it can go.
by Lesley Goldberg
by Carolyn Giardina