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