Revenge of the Sith: A ReviewPosted: May 31, 2005
Actually, not quite. This is actually going to be a review of the entire Star Wars Prequel Trilogy (PT). Whew! I'm going to focus mostly on what the PT accomplished, and what it added (or failed to add) to the Star Wars saga as a whole. However, since Revenge of the Sith is the bridge between the two trilogies, I will be referring to it throughout, including major spoilers, so if you haven't seen the movie yet, this isn't the review you're looking for.
Easy stuff first. Visually, the new Star Wars trilogy was light years ahead of the originals (Original Trilogy – OT). In fact, one complaint I've heard several times is that the effects in the PT create a discontinuity from one trilogy to the next. I don't buy it, but a fair analysis would require a straight viewing – Episodes 1-6. That's a whole day affair, so maybe when the Episode 3 DVD comes out, I'll give it a shot.
Now for the hard stuff. The story presented in the PT is much more complicated and sophisticated than in the OT. The OT was marked by a certain simplicity – good guys versus bad guys. Rarely is there any doubt who is on which side. There are a few shades of grey, but they still tend to be pretty close to black or white. In the PT, it's very hard to tell where people stand. In Revenge of the Sith in particular, people are revealed to be the opposite of what they appear, sometimes within a single scene. Chancellor Palpatine/Darth Sidious, of course, is purely evil the entire time, but he appears on the surface to be a pretty good guy, particularly through the first two episodes. In contrast to the obviously evil Empire in the OT, the PT starts with a “Phantom Menace” – it's not clear where the danger is coming from. So most of the PT is much more ambiguous than the originals – it's hard to know who to root for. By the end of Revenge of the Sith, however, good and evil are firmly established. All grey is eliminated (with the notable exception of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader).
A perfect example of this is in one of the most chilling sequences in the entire series. The clonetroopers, who were fighting side by side with the Jedi, turn evil almost instantly (although they clearly don't have much by way of free will). One moment clone commander Cody is bantering with Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the next, he is giving the order to “blast him”. This happens across the galaxy, and Jedi everywhere are slaughtered. The clones who have been on the “good” side turn out to be heartless monsters, although we suspected as much the whole time. As an aside, the book clarifies an issue here – the Jedi don't sense the betrayal, since the clones' don't register any moral decisions. For the clones, orders are orders, and there is no emotional change to alert the Jedi. The more powerful Jedi (like Yoda and Ki Adi Mundi) sense something is wrong, but the lesser Jedi don't stand a chance. Another troubling question is why the Jedi continued to fight this war the whole time. Presumably they thought they were protecting the Republic, although ironically their participation in the war only helped lead to the Republic's downfall.
The point of all this is that one of the more satisfying aspects of Revenge of the Sith is that it restores the good/evil dichotomy that made the originals so powerful and accessible. I suspect that the previous two episodes' elusiveness in this regard made them far less popular (no that's not the only reason).
The main thing that the PT does is transform the entire series into a story about Anakin Skywalker – his rise, fall, and redemption. So the essential question is, how well does it do this? The answer is, it's a mix.
On one hand, the PT succeeds in presenting Anakin's story as a twist on a classic fairy tale: he goes from slave boy on a barren desert planet to “the most powerful Jedi ever”. But the fairy tale is tainted; he is never fully accepted by the Jedi Council (which comes into play in Revenge of the Sith), he is never able to let go of attachments to his mother and Padme (although I'm not convinced he should), and he never learns the patience necessary to developing his skills as a Jedi. Revenge of the Sith emphasizes all three factors – his poor relationship with the Jedi Council makes it much easier for him to reject the Jedi Order and choose the Sith, his attachment to Padme leads him to desire the power to keep her alive no matter what (in an ironic twist, this very desire leads to her death), and his impatience leads him to the quicker and easier route of the Dark Side. In addition, he has a premonition that Padme dies in childbirth, and this intensifies all three flaws. The Jedi Council does not grant him the rank of Master, which, as explained in the novelization, prevents him from accessing the Jedi Archives and finding more information about the Sith and how to save Padme (his marriage is a secret, and he can't ask the Jedi himself). His attachment to Padme makes him terrified of the prospect of losing her, and the time limit imposed by her pregnancy (she only has a short time before giving birth) rules out the possibility of patience. These factors all result in his turning to the Dark Side, and the destruction of the Jedi and democracy.
On the other hand, there are many missed opportunities. Anakin's being raised as a slave would likely have had psychological implications that aren't sufficiently explored. He ends up essentially as slave to both Sidious, his new master, and his life support suit, his prison. This theme is also not sufficiently explored. There is little explanation as to how Anakin goes from sweet little kid to moody brat between Episodes 1 and 2. Given Anakin and Obi-Wan's rocky relationship at the end of Episode 2, it's hard to see how they are “brothers” at the beginning of Episode 3. In Attack of the Clones, Anakin is furious at Obi-Wan for leaving Padme, his love, behind to fight Count Dooku, and is desperate to save her, and when they actually fight Dooku, Anakin rushes in, ignoring Obi-Wan and nearly getting them both killed. They're not seen speaking again for the rest of the movie. If this had been at least alluded to in Revenge of the Sith, it would have added a lot of clarity. The script never fully connects the dots. Anakin's final turn in Revenge of the Sith is also a bit hasty – one minute he is expressing horror at killing Jedi Master Mace Windu, who he never really liked anyway, and the next minute he is marching to the Jedi Temple to wipe everyone out, including the kids. It's easy to argue that he realized that the Jedi would kill him (and Sidious, who promised to teach him how to save Padme) if he didn't kill them first, but still…
There's one last issue I'd like to address – in what order should newcomers see the trilogy? In episode order (1-6) or order of release (4-6, 1-3)? Or other? I propose 4, 1-3, 5-6, or possibly 4-5, 1-3, 6. That way, you get all the juicy revelations and twists (“I am your father” plus “Palpatine is Sidious”) without losing the storyline. Seeing it this way introduces you to the more “fun” characters of A New Hope, and let's face it, makes sure you get through The Phantom Menace, which is probably the weakest of the six (although many people liked it more than Episode 2. Probably because of the awful love scenes.). That's why I'm hesitant to recommend 1-6: as mentioned before, the OT is simply much more accessible (and yes, fun).
So that's it – there's so much more to write and discuss, which is what makes Star Wars so enduring. But I tried to put the prequels in context here, which changes the nature of the review. Hopefully this is a little different than some of the other reviews.
May the Force be with you.