Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005)
After Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace we were constantly promised that the series would get betterif we just stuck with it; trust in the Lucas, so to speak. There was enough good will left over from the original trilogy that we did, and we were rewarded by Attack of the Clones. By rewarded what I mean is a reduced role for Jar Jar Binks. Otherwise, we got emotionless monologues about sand from a sad, emo version of Anakin Skywalker and Natalie Portman bringing the sort of enthusiasm one does to a dental appointment. Everything forced into the movie to give us a tragic romantic story for Anakin and Padmé just took away from parts that were good, many of them involving Obi-Wan Kenobi uncovering a series of plots that lead to the beginning of the Clone Wars.
Now that we had the beginning of the Clone Wars out of the way, it was time that we got the rest of it - but, in all honesty, that is not what we got for the final film. That all happened off screen, and Revenge of the Sith begins at the tail end of the conflict - a major conflict that eventually led to the downfall of the Galactic Republic and the foundation of the Galactic Empire. Despite that, George Lucas seems to think that bad dreams and domestic drama is more important than history altering events.
Although I have been watching The Clone Wars series, I am still approaching Revenge of the Sith as the movie it was when it came out. The series didn't begin until three years later, and definitely does a good job of showing what happened and fleshing out the characters involved, much better than the prequels ever did. I think that also may be why this movie has had some re-evaluation since it came out. If we ignore Episode I, we have an interesting story thread going from Episode II through the series and into Episode III. The problem is that a movie should be able to stand on its own, and not rely on material released years afterward to make the audience about what is going on or properly introduce key characters.
Just like Attack of the Clones, the frustration is that the movie could have been so much better if there was not a bland soap opera plunked down in the middle of it. The beginning is certainly gripping, with Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin (Christensen) flying through the remains of a just-broken siege of Coruscant by Separatist forces to rescue Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who has been captured by Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) and General Grievous (Matthew Wood). Grievous escapes to Utapau, sending the remaining Separatist leaders to Mustafar under the orders of Darth Sidious.
Meanwhile, Anakin's friendship with Palpatine is deemed suspicious by the Jedi Council, who allow Anakin a seat but refuse him the rank of Master. Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) in particular is concerned, and has Obi-Wan order Anakin to spy on the Chancellor. It turns out that their suspicions are correct on both, as Palpatine reveals himself to Anakin, but Anakin eventually agrees to become his apprentice due to the fear that Padmé (Portman) will die in childbirth. Palpatine promises Anakin the powers to save her, all the while turning him against the Jedi, setting the stage for Palpatine's final rise to Emperor and Anakin's evolution into Darth Vader.
Like the other prequels this is a beauty to look at. Digital effects had improved quite a lot since 1999, and the scenery of Coruscant, Kashyyyk and a number of other planets is amazing. The creatures, such as the dragon thing that Obi-Wan rides on Utapau, look alive rather than resembling video game creations. General Grievous, for the frustratingly short time he is on screen, has both personality and a solid presence. Somehow, though, Yoda still looks worse than he ever did as a puppet; I think it is because Jim Henson, Frank Oz and everyone concerned had so much experience making the Muppets over the years that that a creature like Yoda has a life of its own, and trying to reproduce it on a computer is near impossible.
In addition to the beginning battle, about anything involving Obi-Wan is exciting and worth watching, and Ian McDiarmid gets his spotlight in describing the tragedy of Darth Plagueis to Anakin at the opera house and then joyfully hams it up once he gets to go full Emperor. The final battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin is also quite exciting, knowing how their final confrontation would turn out two decades later. Ewan McGregor conveys the hurt that Obi-Wan has at losing someone that meant so much to him, and his grief at what he has to do is palpable.
Too bad, for all the emphasis put on their secret romance, the same can't be said for the final meeting of Anakin and Padmé. According to Natalie Portman this was her favorite Star Wars movie to do, but there is little here that looks like it. She looks bored and once again emotes like she's reading lines off of a cue card. Christensen also hasn't improved, which is a shame since he is much more central to the bigger story this time around, but still acts like a bratty teenager even though Anakin is 21 at this point. He imagines great insults from the Jedi Council, but it is simply everyone waiting for him to grow up before they make him a Master. What's more, his fall to the dark side, though telegraphed by his massacre of the Sand People and other deeds, still does not make any sense. If Mace Windu or Yoda had told him to his face that he would never be a Master or something of the like, anything blatant enough to cause a complete break with the Jedi, it would make much more sense, but here we have Anakin at one moment deeply concerned for his wife and the next moment willing to murder his friends. George Lucas forgot to put all the bricks in the bridge to get us from one point to another.
This is, of course, where we get to see the creation of the Darth Vader we have known since Star Wars. That it is underwhelming is an understatement. Lucas grabbed James Earl Jones to deliver a few lines, including a famous one that I remember causing uncomfortable laughter in the theater when I originally saw it. As the movie wrapped up there were so many attempts to plug later plot holes, do fan service and, for some reason, come up with an ending straight out of a Victorian romance plot that any emotional heft there was supposed to be was long since sabotaged.
15 years later, even after The Clone Wars finally gave us events and characters so we at least have some emotional investment when Order 66 is executed, Revenge of the Sith remains a hamfisted attempt at correcting mistakes and continuity errors in the earlier films while trying to convince everyone that Lucas can still stir up some of the old magic. He occasionally does, but it's sporadic. Reading the events of the film in Wookiepedia is much more interesting than watching the movie itself, and a lot less gut-churning than having to hear Anakin and Padmé declare their love one more time.
Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Time: 140 minutes
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Ian McDiarmid, Natalie Portman
Director: George Lucas