An Increasingly Inaccurately Named Trilogy: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
With Revenge of the Sith, our approach runs into trouble. A constant tension in reading both The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones was the fact that they were, in pragmatic reality, designed to be watched by people who had already seen the original trilogy. In practice both films were designed – with more intelligence than Lucas usually gets credit for – to still communicate their main ideas to an unspoiled audience. Indeed, in both cases you can plausibly argue that an unspoiled reading produces a clearer account of the films, revealing a more coherent (if still exceedingly unorthodox) logic for both.
That simply does not work for Revenge of the Sith. There’s no way around the fact that once Order 66 is activated, the film by and large stops being concerned with resolving the story that began with The Phantom Menace and turns its attention fully towards setting up A New Hope. The notion that what it’s doing might meaningfully be called storytelling limps along for a bit longer, its closing minutes don’t even pretend anymore. Yoda’s declaration that he will go into exile seems motivated by literally nothing save for lining up with The Empire Strikes Back – “oh, I failed in one combat with Darth Sidious, might as well give up and let him take over the galaxy.” Once Padme starts delivering her twins the film seems visibly impatient for her to finally die. And let’s not even start with the shoehorned in “Qui-Gon has discovered the secret to immortality” line, which seems to exist for no other reason than that Lucas fucked up two films earlier and forgot to have Qui-Gon’s body disappear.
No, actually, I changed my mind; let’s talk about that after all. After all, it cuts to the heart of the other very big problem this film has. It’s true that the sort of immortality Qui-Gon has obtained – a quasi-disembodied life inside the Force – is definitely not what Anakin is desperately seeking throughout the film and what ends up turning him to the dark side. Nevertheless, the primary plot of the movie is nominally “Anakin turns to the dark side because of his fears of Padme’s death,” and it’s specifically the fact that Palpatine says the dark side can save her that turns him, so the revelation that the Jedi have a form of immortality really ought to be treated as a weighty part of the plot instead of as a throwaway bit of continuity wank.
But this gets at what is probably Revenge of the Sith’s most fundamental problem: it’s structured and conceived as a classical tragedy about Anakin’s downfall. In some ways this is inevitable – at some point the story about a guy falling to the dark side was always going to revert into classically tragic structures. Apparently in revisions and editing the reasons for Anakin’s fall were steadily focused to their final form of being mostly about Padme, which is a fact that’s mostly striking for how sloppy it still is save for in the Darth Plagueis scene, which is notable first for being the bit of the film Tom Stoppard most obviously worked on and second for the name “Darth Plagueis,” which is very possibly the best thing in the entire saga. But this is hardly surprising. Nobody would look at the four Star Wars movies written and directed by Lucas and conclude that a character-driven tragedy was going to play to his strengths. For one thing, it almost certainly requires that one actually talk to the actors.
This is trending dangerously close to some sort of Red Letter Media-style abuse, so let’s take a step back. Thus far our understanding of Star Wars has been based on the stuff that is so idiosyncratic that it’s almost impossible to say whether or not Lucas is doing it well. Yes, that stuff takes a back seat in Revenge of the Sith, replaced by things Lucas is objectively bad at. But a back seat is still in the speeder, as it were. After all, Revenge of the Sith isn’t just the story of Anakin’s fall, it’s the story of the final collapse of the Galactic Republic and rise of the Empire. The rise of fascism has consistently been the strongest facet of the prequel trilogy, and Revenge of the Sith is no exception. The most obvious thing to point to is “so this is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause,” which is the other “why hello Mr. Stoppard” moment in the script, but is also very possibly the moment, across all seven films, where the saga most obviously has something interesting and important to say. That’s not quite the same as being the best moment, but it’s clearly the weightiest moment.
What’s interesting, then, is that Palpatine’s account of why the Republic must be dismantled and replaced with the Empire is not actually completely untrue. The Jedi did have a plot to remove him from power and assume political control. Yes, this plot was because he was a murderous Sith Lord seeking to establish a tyrannical empire, but the plot is still there. More to the point, this serves as the culmination of the prequels’ general ambivalence about the Jedi. This is possibly the most interesting thing to emerge when the story is put into Lucas’s desired order. The fact that the main protagonist of the original trilogy spends the bulk of the trilogy striving to become a Jedi and the only representatives of the Jedi in the trilogy are Yoda and Obi-Wan, which is to say, sympathetic and fun characters means that there’s no real pushback on the idea that the Jedi are straightforwardly good guys there. And while the prequels question the Jedi, they don’t do it in a way that’s strong enough to counteract that.
But when the prequels are positioned first the ambivalence towards the Jedi gets baked in at a more fundamental level. We’ll get at what this does to the original trilogy soon enough, but in terms of Revenge of the Sith where this plays in is in the Mace Windu/Palpatine confrontation, where Mace makes it clear that he’s going to extra-judicially assassinate Palpatine, a fact that ties in ominously with the earlier discussion of the Jedi having to assume temporary control of the Senate. There’s a clear implication that this is a fundamentally doomed endeavor on Mace’s part for reasons that go beyond the fact that Anakin’s going to cut his hand off. Whatever might have emerged out of a Jedi coup would surely have been better than the Empire, but there’s no sense that it would be better than the Republic, and thus better than the system that led to the Empire’s rise.
Obviously this isn’t to say that the Jedi aren’t the heroic figures in this story. The (legitimately poignant) Order 66 sequence makes it unambiguous that Revenge of the Sith’s sympathies are with the Jedi even as it demonstrates their failure. But what’s interesting in all of this is the lack of any real third option. The Sith/Empire are unambiguously evil fascists, the Jedi/Republic are tainted and inadequate responses to them, but this doesn’t ever resolve into a way forward. There’s no alternative to the Republic presented.
Indeed, the closest thing is Anakin, whose status as someone who got the worst of what the Republic has to offer and as an explicitly messianic figure would, structurally, seem to position him as the natural resolution to the tension. Indeed, it’s only the fact that Anakin has been portrayed as blatantly fascist since Attack of the Clones that precludes this being the obvious interpretation of what bringing balance to the force would actually mean – finding some position for it beyond the crass malevolence of the Sith and the impotent hermeticism of the Jedi.
Of course, the actual meaning of that prophecy is a famously tricky business. The popular fan theory that it was a near miss and that Luke was the actual chosen one is obvious and sensible, and I certainly don’t think we’re particularly obliged to take Lucas’s subsequent denouncing of that interpretation terribly seriously. Equally, however, it’s far from clear that Luke brings any sort of balance to the force, especially when The Force Awakens is taken into account, and so we ought look at alternate hypotheses as well. Another simple and credible one is that “balance to the force” in the context of the Jedi’s dominance means the rise of the dark side. But this is, frankly, deeply cynical to the point of being unsatisfying.
More interesting is to question the basic dichotomy of the light and dark sides of the force. After all, if both the Jedi and Sith are ultimately rejected by the film then we shouldn’t take the framework in which they set up their dualism as particularly binding either. It’s worth noting that Anakin describes the Sith as fueled by “passion,” which isn’t exactly the strongest choice of vices that Lucas could have sold there. There’s something to the idea that the dark side is not actually something to be eschewed entirely. Sure, the Sith’s wholehearted embrace of it is clearly even worse, but some sort of, well, balance seems desirable.
But this just brings us back to our increasingly frustrated knot. “Balance” is a fundamentally tainted word at this point, what with being associated with a guy who murders loads of children. The film has a number of ways out of this, but it stubbornly refuses to take any of them, ultimately preferring to be a story about a woman leading Anakin astray and nobody thinking to bring her to an OB/GYN. The readings lurk in the background, and some aren’t entirely foreclosed (the sequel trilogy could pull some sort of “neither the light nor the dark side” trick yet), but more than with either The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones they’re simply not what the film is doing.
Instead it’s doing things like a twenty minute opening action sequence (Revenge of the Sith is, by a ridiculous margin, the Star Wars film that takes the longest to get to its first wipe due pretty much entirely to how long it takes for it to get to its second scene), a robot called General Grievous who wields four lightsabers, and an extensive volcano lightsaber duel. Which is probably a good scene to end on, because it embodies this frustrating and inadequate film.
Obviously the Anakin/Obi-Wan duel is one of the bits of the prequel trilogy that inherits vast mythic weight from the original trilogy. And yet Lucas isn’t willing to just rely on that weight, insisting on choreographing the entire thing with lots of jumping from platform to platform and overblown maximalism. It’s incredibly frustrating – a scene that didn’t need anything other than its own drama that has that drama buried under a desperately self-defeating attempt at making it the biggest lightsaber battle ever.
There’s no shortage of moments in the prequel trilogy where its sense of maximalism, if not “works” per se, is at least interesting and generative. But here – and I’m speaking about the film in general and not just about the Mustafar fight – it’s neither. It’s just an old man trying to recreate past glories and being unable to come up with anything other than less elegant imitations of them.
Yes, of course that criticism can be applied to the entire prequel trilogy. And maybe there’s nothing that would have worked, in the traditional sense, to resolve that trilogy. Maybe something as messy and fundamentally compromised as the prequels could never have paid off in anything other than a disappointing mess. But while the Star Wars saga objectively improves after this film, nothing that’s after it is quite as fascinating as the bizarre and unruly chimera of what the prequels could have been and occasionally threatened to be. And that’s worth being at least a little bit sad about as we move forward.
- Attack of the Clones
- The Phantom Menace
- Revenge of the Sith
February 13, 2017 @ 8:33 pm
This has definitely been interesting so far. You’re far more gracious to the franchise than I tend to be, and your rankings are thus far the opposite of mine (I dislike all three prequels, but find AotC easily the worst of the lot), but it’s refreshing to read an analysis that isn’t blinded by fannish rage. I’ve never really been much of a Star Wars fan, per se, but I do find them culturally interesting, so I often think my engagement with the series is different than a lot of other people’s.
February 14, 2017 @ 4:56 am
Interesting read, as usual.
I remember my greatest, and continuing, impression coming out of the theatre was how much the (set-in-stone) requirements of continuity and the plot points to be ticked off took control of the characters, their decisions and dialogue in the last half of the film. Leaving the final impression that I had not just finished watching a complete movie, but something more akin to a long running TV series story ‘catch-up’ special before the new season starts.
Rogue One performed a similar trick, but without displaying its underlying intention quite so obviously.
February 14, 2017 @ 2:38 pm
I usually say “LEGO Star Wars ruined Revenge of the Sith for me,” but, in truth, I think the film was always going to be ruined for me. (What I mean by the LEGO Star Wars comment is that the game came out a month before Sith, so I experienced the story in LEGO fashion before I saw the film. Which is why I laughed uproariously in the theater at the post-Mustafar Darth Vader reveal and Padme’s death in childbirth, as both moments are played for laughs in the game.) The film’s problem was always that it had to line up with films made twenty years before, so it rarely did anything unexpected. I kept expecting a swerve on a massive scale, like perhaps Obi-Wan, not Anakin, was the real father of Padme’s children. (The film makes a few weird hints in that direction, hints I think the film should have embraced.) It’s the film’s inevitability — or rather, it’s lack of unpredictability — that has me rank it at the bottom of the Star Wars films in my estimation. It is, like The Force Awakens, a well-made but not very good film. Unlike The Force Awakens, it’s not a film that will be built on in future installments in ways that will redeem it.
February 14, 2017 @ 8:36 pm
“Your old master, Qui-Gon, figured out how to be a force ghost. Hmm..expected a cameo, I obviously did. When Neeson didn’t show, why we left this scene in the movie, I don’t know”
February 15, 2017 @ 2:15 am
I remember when Revenge of the Sith first came out, the general consensus being that, while still not quite as good as the original movies, it was the best Star Wars movie since them by far.
In hindsight, this was almost certainly because the second half of the movie is nothing but fannish set-up. Why this movie was allowed to get away with pure fanwank and Phantom Menace wasn’t I never understood, but I never pretended to understand Star Wars or its fans to begin with.
February 16, 2017 @ 11:41 pm
Also, it’s ‘dark’. ‘Dark’ means ‘serious’, which means ‘good’.
(THIS COMMENT CONTAINS SARCASM)
February 15, 2017 @ 6:11 pm
the name “Darth Plagueis,” which is very possibly the best thing in the entire saga
And I suppose Darth Maul had already broken the pattern (two examples is enough for a pattern, right?) of Sith names being a word with the prefix “in-” removed. I wish Lucas had kept on with that, just because I want to believe there was once a pair of Sith Lords called Darth Sinuation and Darth Nuendo.
February 15, 2017 @ 9:21 pm
Interesting conclusion on the possibility of neither light/dark or Jedi/Sith, because…
SPOILERS for Star Wars Rebels/SPECULATION on The Last Jedi
With Star Wars Rebels, they’ve been working around the whole Jedi/Sith continuum with Kanan, a former Padawan who escaped Order 66, training Ezra, and while Kanan takes a couple steps toward becoming a full-fledged Jedi, they’re not really Jedi. Ezra learned some Dark Side knowledge from a Sith holocron at end of season two/beginning of season three, and while he wasn’t corrupted like Anakin, he’s sort of in an interesting position, if he might develop an in-between state.
In the second season, they’re assisted by Ahosaka, who was Anakin’s Padawan in the Clones Wars, and she never became a Jedi either when she was forced to flee false persecution or something like that. And during the first two seasons, they’re hunted by these Inquisitors, Dark Side force users who aren’t Sith either.
This whole not light/dark idea was also brought up by a character called Bendu, a Force-Sensitive creature voiced by Tom Baker, who lectures Kanan when he’s worried about Ezra becoming evil at the start of season three. Bendu brings the Sith and Jedi holocrons together, and they reveal some information, or he remarks that he’s neither light or dark, but just uses the Force.
As for the Last Jedi, I read up on sci-fi news on io9, and either in the comments or in an article/essay about The Last Jedi, someone brought up the possibility that Luke is the last Jedi, this is the end of the Jedi as we know it. Going forward, characters like Rey and Kylo will bring about a new concept or idea of the Force where it’s not Sith or Jedi.
My personal speculation, if George Lucas indeed came up with some outline for an epic series of movies, which he might’ve shown or shared with Disney when they bought his company and continued his work, then perhaps he did have some notion about how this series was about the downfall of the Jedi and the rise of something else in its place.
Shrugs Just a thought.
February 15, 2017 @ 10:11 pm
It does open up some possibilities. Personally, I’ll be disappointed if we get to the end of Episode 9 without Snoke saying to Luke “From now on, all that anyone will know about will be the COBRA KAI FORCE!”
February 17, 2017 @ 4:51 pm
“That was me.”
August 20, 2018 @ 11:48 pm
And events have proved you right. Have a gibbon.
February 17, 2017 @ 12:06 am
I’ve always regarded the prequels as a noble failure; Lucas is more ambitious with the prequels than anything else he ever made, and that’s saying something, as Star Wars was also a very ambitious movie. He often fails, but I’m glad he tried to stretch beyond his limits. Lots of creative figures hit a plateau and then never try to rise above it.
I think the reason that Lucas doesn’t show a third way beyond the rotten republic and the rise of the Emperor is that it’s the job of the original movies to do that, to show something new which will deal with the problems of the old republic and of the Jedi Order. Padme Amidala and Annikan Skywalker were the hope for a better future and by the end, Padme is dead and Annikan has fallen to the Dark Side and become Vader. Yet out of their illicit union will come Luke, who will do what his father could not, and Leia, who will do what her mother could not. The fact that their union had to be illicit, that the Jedi had walled themselves off from humanity and human needs, is part of why the Jedi’s sight had failed. The Jedi became cold and distant. And so had the Republic; the ability of Palpatine to create a huge Seperatist movement so easily shows that the Republic had also become alienated from those who lived in it; the fact that they use a clone army, unwilling to risk their own people, even to save the Republic, further shows that.
The Republic and the Jedi have become grey, indistinct, distant, failing to respond to people’s needs; the Jedi don’t care if people are enslaved. The Republic doesn’t care if Naboo is trashed and enslaved by the Trade Federation. The mere fact that one member of the Republic can make war on another shows the system is rotten.
This alienation makes it possible for Palpatine to play both sides against each other; once the war begins, Palaptine has won; even if he is exposed and died, the Republic will have smashed itself to pieces and the Sith will have their revenge. If one side or the other wins, Palpatine controls that side and rules whatever survives the war.
This makes Palpatine one of the most brilliant villains ever; too often, villains aren’t allowed enough victories to remain dangerous but Palaptine wins when the good guys win.
And thus he becomes the symbol of the great danger for liberal democracy in the ‘war on terror’. Fighting the war creates pressure to abandon everything that makes them any different from their foes. A perpetual war that can never be won makes it easy to throw away all the protections and rights of civil society in a desperate quest for security. And that is what Lucas is pointing to in the prequels. The harder you fight fire with fire, the more you burn yourself.
Once Palpatine wins, once he creates the Empire, he ironically also lays the groundwork for rebirth. The age of grey is over, replaced by an age of black and white, but also an age in which heroic deeds can turn the tide, because Palpatine is no longer playing both sides of the board. And it’s an age in which another way can flourish, in which Leia will help lead the Rebellion, and bring about a new Republic, and Luke will create a new Jedi Order, each purged of the flaws of the past.
So the Prequels serve a lot of purposes, but a big one is a cautionary tale about how a state of perpetual ‘war’ can undercut and destroy democracy, especially if we’ve already let it rot.
March 1, 2017 @ 8:43 am
I too always learn something new from your post.
March 7, 2017 @ 11:02 pm
Rather bizarre and incoherent review. Maybe one should try and look at the actual film that exists as opposed to one that others wanted?
The character and story of Anakin Skywalker is one of the best in movie history played out over 6 movies.
ROTS is THE best SW movie of all as far as I am concerned but the others are so close that it makes little difference. Others as in Lucas’ movies not TFA (R1 is very good).
Then again some people actually think TFA is great and if that is what they like then fine but for myself that is the nadir of the Star Wars saga. A nice recap of Lucas’s story but rather irrelevant as we have his movies already. So a new introduction for a new audience who can then go back and watch the original 6.
March 7, 2017 @ 11:09 pm
The character and story of Anakin Skywalker is one of the best in movie history