Mike’s bang-up-to-date review of Revenge of the Sith

Here’s a little something I wrote on 22nd May 2005, three days after Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith came out.  I’m reproducing it partly because I think it stands up rather better than certain other contemporary reviews, but also partly as context for what I want to say next time.  Enjoy!

Revenge of the Sith is a perplexing film — full of wonderful moments, but making up a whole that is much less than the sum of its parts. Again and again it delivers smack-in-the-gob visual wonders, including a much more awesome vision of Coruscant, a beautiful Kashyyyk, and whatever the planet is where Obi-Wan hunts and kills General Grievous. Best of all is the opening sequence’s space battle, which delivers a sense of scale, of enormous forces at work, that none of the previous films attained. And yet the story is ultimately no more convincing than that of Attack of the Clones (hereafter AotC), the acting is a wooden as ever — perhaps more so — and there is none of the sense of closure that I had hoped for.

Maybe the top problem of them all is that George Lucas still can’t write scripts. It’s tragic but true. Someone should have told him. There were an enormous number of points in the film where I thought “if only this person had said that instead”. One example: having set up the heartbreaking scenario where Obi-Wan has to persuade Padme to tell him where Anakin is, Lucus has her say to Obi-Wan, “You’re going to kill him, aren’t you?” The brutal answer would have been “yes”: a powerful watershed moment that would have put Padme on the spot and nailed down the nature of the conflict. Instead, Obi-Wan delivers some cruddy line about “He has become a great threat”.

Much of the film feels rushed. General Grievous is the new Darth Maul — an interesting character who was clearly created only for Obi-Wan to have someone to kill. His use of four lightsabres devalues what was once the characteristic weapon of the Jedi — now everyone seems to have one (or more). And how disappointing that he is, eventually, killed with a blaster. Nice work, Obi.

Speaking of lightsabres, it seems totally wrong that Palpatine suddenly turns out to be a whiz with one. How did he learn? When does he practice? How did no-one know. Surely the Dark Lord of the Sith should have been able to use different and subtler powers to achieve his ends. Instead, we are treated to a depressingly unimaginative sequence of lightsabre fighting with Yoda, who surprised and delighted us with his unanticipated prowess in AotC, but who now merely goes through the motions.

Palpatine disappoints because he never really sells the Dark Side to Anakin. He basically just says “How ’bout I teach you some dark side stuff, so Padme will survive” and Anakin replies “OK, then”. Weak weak weak. Much more is required — more cunning, more deviousness, more Mandelson-like spin. I expected him to slowly lead Anakin down a path of “realising” that the so-called Dark Side is not really dark, merely different. Ben promised me in Episode IV that Vader was “seduced by the Dark Side”, but there was no seduction here: just a sordid quickie up against the wall in an alley.

What makes this even worse is that AotC established, in a crucial test, that Anakin’s character was not so easily corruptible. When Padme falls from the gunship during the pursuit of Dooku, Anakin wants to turn back and rescue her at the cost of abandoning their mission; but Obi-Wan is able to persuade him to continue. “What would Padme do?” he asks; and Anakin replies “She would do her duty”, and so returns to his own. So we know that Anakin is wise enough to see that his broader duty overrides his attachment to Padme, and that he clearly sees that this is what she would want, too. Yet when the choice comes between murdering children and allowing Padme maybe to die, he almost immediately chooses the former. It doesn’t ring true. The whole arc of Anakin’s transition to the Dark Side through three films is therefore shown to have been badly bodged.

In previous films, Ian McDiarmid (as Palpatine) has been head and shoulders above all the other actors in the subtlety of his delivery, the ambiguity of his portrayal. What went wrong this time? He succumbs to the temptation to overact dreadfully. Sad. In the end, the most convincing performance of them all (which is not saying much) is Yoda’s. His expression of grim determination mixed with simple sadness is a masterpiece that the human actors would have done well to study. While Hayden Chrisensen’s Anakin is (to give credit where it’s due) less wooden and more persuasive than previously, Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan is painful to watch, and could hardly be farther removed from the gentle, wise and insightful Obi-Wan we know from Alec Guinness’s nuanced performance in A New Hope.

Finally, there is the problem that we know where the story is going. I don’t know how Lucas could have avoided this, but — crucially — neither did he. Padme must become pregnant and give birth to twins; all the Jedi but Obi-Wan and Yoda must be killed; Anakin must fall into a volcano and become Vader. There is some interest in seeing how this is all played out, but no sense of invention and precious little surprise. The perfunctoriness with which the Skywalker twins’ adoption is handled is an insult to the broad sweep of the plot:

Yoda: “Separated they must be.”
(No-one: “Why?”)
Yoda: “Adopted the daughter must be”
Bail Organa: “Yo!”
Yoda: “Into exile Obi-Wan must go, the son to watch over”
Obi-Wan: “Oh, alright.”
Exeunt, pursued by a bear.

In summary: it was awesome, and I loved it.

8 responses to “Mike’s bang-up-to-date review of Revenge of the Sith

  1. I’ve recently rewatched all three for the first time since the initial cinema glow. I liked them when I first saw them, but the fridge logic attacked me not long after and ruined it for me. I have to say I agree with almost every one of your points, though Obi-wan using a blaster to kill Grievous was a deliberate joke, and probably the best done thing in that movie. He rather disgustedly says afterwards “such an uncivilized weapon”, a shoutout, of course, to his famous line in IV “an elegant weapon, from a more civilized age”. Sure, it’s not as powerful as say Bat Man or The Doctor using a gun, but it was meant to be funny. Rather sad, really, that it’s the best thing about the movie.

    The whole “I have the high ground” thing pissed me off, too. Maybe Anakin isn’t the big picture master planner Obi-wan is, but there are better things for him to have done than try to jump over him. Push, Pull, throw his saber, choke, I’m sure he could have blundered his way to using lightning. The only reason he never does is because he’s kept alive by sensitive electronics, but there’s nothing to have stopped him in this scene. It could have taken the subtlest of touches to overbalance Obi-wan, or to alter the path of his saber, but noooooo, Lucas opts for “and then he died the end” (almost). This is THE scene that proves once and for all that Jedi don’t like natural limbs, by the way. Of the four limbs Anakin had, one was already robotic. Was it among those Obi-wan cut off? No, he sliced off every OTHER limb. Afterward, with the whole attempt at emotion, Ewan McGregor makes, Obi-wan doesn’t mercy-kill Anakin, or fetch him and bring him back for treatment, he just leaves him to smoulder away a presumably slow death on the edge of the molten rock. That one piece there, above all others, breaks the credibility of the film.

  2. I think you gave it way too much praise.

    They’re much much much better with Rifftrax. Almost watchable, even.

  3. A good analysis of what was wrong with the movie. Aside from all the points you made about wooden acting, bad script writing and unbelievable turns, what disappointed me the most was the transition of Anakin to the dark side. I’ll disagree somewhat where you say Palpatine didn’t sell the dark side to Anakin. It seemed unbelievable to me Anakin could ever be sold on the dark side by talk alone. He’s supposed to be powerful, not gullible. I was really hoping for a love triangle between Anakin, Padme and Obi-Wan.

    I was sure a love triangle would come in to play as love and betrayal are the best motivations for someone turning bad. It also leaves one sympathetic to the evil actions of the betrayed. The vague references Obi-Wan made in the first series about being responsible for Anakin’s fate would have been wrapped up nicely. It would have fit nicely in to the classic archetypes used in the original series: the princess needing rescuing, the farmboy who turns out to be a prince, or even the strained father son relationship with spiritual redemption coming only at the end. The new movies would be the story of “the guy who turned bad because his mentor messed around with his girlfriend”. Lusas could even have left an open question as to the paternity of Luke and Leia, now that would have been interesting.

    So now I’ve re-written Star Wars. I can’t believe I have neurons that spend time on this stuff.

  4. If you haven’t already, you should really watch Confused Matthew’s review of this prequel trilogy. Much more intelligent, and fun, than the movies themselves. Here: http://www.confusedmatthew.com/The-Star-Wars-Prequels.php

  5. @Ido: I much prefer the Plinkett reviews. A few annoyances in them, but overall very accurate.

  6. Because I like to enjoy things, I sometimes make a deliberate choice to experience what should have been, in open defiance of what’s on the screen. The Star Wars prequels yield very well to this treatment. It’s simple — whenever you go “if only this person had said that instead,” you just retroactively remember them saying that and get on with the movie. It only takes a minor level of self-suggestion, and you get to see a much better film.

    Now, if you enjoy complaining, too, you can go back and watch the actual movie and critique it another time, but it’s always a good idea to see the hypothetical good movie unless the actual movie is so distracting that you just can’t.

    Sometimes, of course, the hypothetical good movie requires a more extensive rewrite, which makes it hard to just watch. This is one of the things we have fanfic for. Here’s my hypothetical good version (or rather the patch for it) of Matrix:Revolutions.

  7. Haha, excellent ending!

    It’s great to see this review, especially since I have just seen the movie last weekend.

    Then again, I find some of your complaints to be rather subjective. Obi-wan’s answer says more than just a simple ‘yes’. First, it tries to make Padme analyse what has become of his loved one, which also relates to Anakin’s belief that Obi-wan has turned her against him. Also, it is more in his character, or perhaps shows his inner conflict between having to kill his friend and doing what is right.

    I found Grievous a good addition, showing what is to become of Anakin, but he is also opposite to what Jedi are. I think it was very inventive of Lucas in a Universe where he have seen so much to include this being whose lightsaber skill comes from his mechanical abilities and whose death is so ironic.

    And I think Palpatine has been slimy and devious enough for 3 and more movies. His risen to Supreme Chancelor, built a clone army, started a galaxy wide war in which he controlled both sides, persuaded the Senate to give him more and more power and finally the Empire, not to mention that he stayed hidden from the Jedi, while manipulating their brightest member and I could go on. The question was…. “Ok, but he’s a Sith, and he doesn’t look so fearsome.” Well he totally delivered – a classy, no nonsense, evil fighting style. And I totally love MacDiarmid’s performance – especially that “POWER!!!! ULTIMATE POWER!!!!” Totally a climax for the most fearsome being in the galaxy. I mean, how would you feel if you’d have to stay 10 years in a chair, just pulling strings, and finally you see your life long dream almost fulfilled? You go nuts, just like that.

    Finally, I think Lucas has never been good at offering scene’s where the tension comes from the actors’ performance. Rather he is showing sketches of different scenes, which in the end complete a very complex picture. Anakin didn’t simply accept. And I don’t think that he was shown as not easily corruptible. He didn’t go for Padme, because Obi-wan was there to keep him on track. In fact, he’s always been consumed by strong emotions and doing what isn’t right – like falling in love in the first place. Then neglecting his duty and running to save his mother. We’ve seen the reasons: ambition, power, fear of loss etc. And even in this movie. Palpatine lays down the offer. Anakin, first wants to kill him, then he hands him over to the Jedi. We see all his internal conflict, which is shown by bits and pieces, and different portraits: he is losing faith in the Jedi, he even has squabbles with Padme. What is he to choose? He knows Palpatine should be arrested, but he sees a mad Windu who wants to slash him. After that it’s like a kid who’s done a terrible thing. He can’t go back, so he can only go forward and convince himself he is doing it for a good reason. I, for one, was totally bought.

    I found this movie to be the darkest, most emotional movie I have experienced, giving me a feeling I have not felt any other time.

    I can’t wait to see what you have to say next.

    Merry Christmas!

  8. Pingback: Luke Skywalker: A New Hope | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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