Friday, May 7, 2021

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith

Note: This review contains spoilers for Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

Three years after Attack of the Clones, the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy came to a close with Episode III: Revenge of the Sith in 2005, notably the first PG-13 film in the series. Even though I didn’t watch this film very much after its original theatrical release, I remembered its general events the most even over a decade later. To complete our re-evaluation of the Prequel Trilogy, we watched the 2003 Star Wars: Clone Wars cartoon to help bridge the gap from Attack of the Clones, then watched Revenge of the Sith through the original 2005 DVD release, which features one minor editing change from the theatrical release (two wipes are replaced with straight cuts). While this doesn’t rise to the same heights as the Original Trilogy, it represents a significant improvement over the other Prequel films and is the most memorable and entertaining, even enjoyable.

To quote the opening crawl: “War! The Republic is crumbling under attacks by the ruthless Sith Lord, Count Dooku. There are heroes on both sides. Evil is everywhere. In a stunning move, the fiendish droid leader, General Grievous, has swept into the Republic capital and kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine, leader of the Galactic Senate. As the Separatist Droid Army attempts to flee the besieged capital with their valuable hostage, two Jedi Knights lead a desperate mission to rescue the captive Chancellor....”

Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) lead a rescue mission to save Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from the cyborg Separatist commander General Grievous (Matthew Wood). After infiltrating Grievous’ flagship, the Jedi do battle with and win against Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), whom Anakin kills at Palpatine’s insistence. Grievous escapes and the Jedi land on Coruscant, where Anakin learns that Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) is pregnant with his child. Soon, however, Anakin has nightmares about Padmé dying in childbirth and seeks a way to prevent this from happening.

Anakin and Obi-Wan meet General Grievous (Matthew Wood) for the first time.

Revenge of the Sith benefits most from its comparatively more focused storyline that provides an actual payoff to the story elements that The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones had built up, which feel more apparent when viewing the Prequel Trilogy in close proximity. Palpatine completes his gradual takeover of the Republic and Anakin’s emotions have completely steered him towards the Dark Side, largely influenced by Palpatine’s lies and manipulation. As such, the final lightsaber duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan on Mustafar carries a lot of emotional weight, since Obi-Wan must now fight the man he once considered as more than just a student, but a brother. The depths to which Anakin is willing to sink to protect Padmé also show just how desperate he is for recognition of his talents and come to a tragic conclusion when he realizes just how much he’s lost in the pursuit of power.

There are other story improvements as well. The politics are toned down in favor of highlighting the action and character elements, which also focuses the commentary towards a surprisingly relevant message about how any democracy can turn into a dictatorship with the consent of the people. During one pivotal scene for Anakin, the film also expands on the lore of the franchise through the Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise, which motivates and parallel’s Anakin’s own.

Apart from some greatly improved CG compared to Attack of the Clones, with models that more seamlessly blend in, the visuals have more of a semblance of artistic direction. Heavier use of shadows fit the darker themes of the story and the scenes on Mustafar have some interesting compositions with the sun and smoke. While the climactic lightsaber duels in the third act are shot pretty decently, the final part of the film has a great visual parallel between Padmé and Anakin that plays with themes of death and (re)birth.

The duel on Mustafar has some interesting shots;
L-R: Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen)

Much like the CG, the acting is much better here than in Attack of the Clones. Natalie Portman isn’t nearly as stiff in her delivery and Hayden Christensen actually shows more of his acting range and control over subtle expressions, though he does overact a bit, especially during the duel on Mustafar. Ewan McGregor also has an improved performance as Obi-Wan, with memorable line delivery and a range that can make the end of the duel on Mustafar come off actually sad. Of course, owing to their talents, Christopher Lee, Frank Oz and Samuel L. Jackson turn in great performances as Count Dooku, Yoda and Mace Windu respectively.

And, as always, you can’t go wrong with John Williams’ iconic score.

As much as the film improved on its predecessors, however, there are issues that are hard to ignore. Besides the fact that some of the special effects are more noticeably fake than others, the story has pacing issues towards the end and feels a little rushed during the last few minutes. This last section does finish setting up the circumstances necessary for the Original Trilogy, including addressing an element Attack of the Clones had set up, but it requires some contrivances. For instance, the Battle Droids and their numerous variants from the Prequel Trilogy don’t show up in the Original Trilogy because Darth Sidious orders that they all shut down and Anakin simply goes along with it. I don’t know if this point is elaborated on in expanded universe material, but some additional reasoning would have helped.

In a departure from the Original Trilogy, R2-D2 is effectively a living swiss army knife, especially during the opening space battle over Coruscant. He can not only electrocute droids while docked in Anakin’s ship, he killed two Super Battle Droids by spraying them with oil and burning them with his built-in thrusters. None of these abilities are seen outside of the Prequels and there’s no explanation, not even a quick line, as to why he never does any of those things in the Original Trilogy.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment, however, is General Grievous. If you watch the 2003 Star Wars: Clone Wars cartoon beforehand, like I did, you’d easily walk away with the impression that Grievous is a ruthless Jedi killer who can fend off five Jedi at once without any Force powers. Although the end of that series explains his coughing fits throughout this film, that doesn’t explain why he’s suddenly characterized, both in dialogue and in action, as a cowardly moustache-twirling villain. He does get a fight with Obi-Wan, but gets defeated rather quickly and in the most anti-climactic way possible. I haven’t seen the 2008 Star Wars: The Clone Wars cartoon, but I heard that his characterization doesn’t improve much, so if you ended up watching that series before this film, you might have a different expectation.

General Grievous feels like a waste of a cool concept.

Although the dialogue isn’t the best, the script does actually have some memorable lines that have lived on through memes. Reverse-recognizing some of these lines can actually heighten the enjoyment of the film, since they also help make their respective scenes stick with you. These lines include, but are not limited to: “Ironic.”; “I am the Senate.”; “It’s over Anakin. I have the high ground.”; “You were the Chosen One!”; “You underestimate my power.”; “Hold on. This whole operation was your idea.”; and “This is where the fun begins.”

Despite the divisive nature of the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy, Revenge of the Sith gives that part of the franchise the payoff that they desperately needed to justify watching those films. It’s undercooked in places and doesn’t make for the smoothest transition into the original Star Wars film, or even Rogue One, but it’s not as bad as I had remembered and shows just how much the films improve when actors get comfortable in their roles and better care is taken in writing a script. As always, if you’re going to watch this film, try to get as close as possible to the original theatrical cut.

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