The ratio of plot-to-prequel- strictly in terms of what the overall plot of each film adds to the prequel trilogy as a whole- is something like 10-30-60. The Phantom Menace, for whatever redeeming qualities it may have, is simply not all that necessary to the trilogy or the saga as a whole because it doesn’t add anything narratively. Attack of the Clones establishes our young adult Anakin in the first film he should have been in, and starts the should-have-been-titular Clone Wars, one of the defining events of the entire Star Wars saga. This leaves a great amount of the rest of the prequel trilogy’s plot, namely Anakin’s fall to the dark side and the subsequent rise of the Empire, to be resolved in Revenge of the Sith. While it begins a little unevenly, it eventually settles into that remaining percentage and, somewhere along the way, ties the Star Wars universe together in tragedy and darkness.
The effects, for their part, have dramatically improved since those in Episode I and still hold up well today. That said, they are still glaringly over-present, especially in the way-too-busy opening battle over Coruscant. How much must this war be costing the entire galaxy? It would seem to be a commentary on the facelessness of unlimited armies (be they clone or droid), the bleakness of unending conflict, and could be arguably intentional, but this doesn’t feel like the case. Very early in the film, the audience is told in no uncertain terms that the Republic is clearly winning the war, only needing to capture General Grievous to bring it to an end. This suggests that the Separatists haven’t as many droids floating around as they’d like, nor anyone to command them. If this was really as “daring” a move as the opening crawl suggests, it’d be nicer to see some kind of smaller special operations force sweep into the capitol to kidnap the chancellor. Bigger isn’t necessarily always better, and even though the opening battle looks pretty nice, it’s overkill. Why did Sith have more VFX shots than Menace and Clones combined? This. This right here.
Having sixty percent of his story left to tell didn’t stop Lucas from cramming every manner of inane nonsense and fall-flat slapstick into the beginning of the film, making it all-too-similar to the prequels that preceded it and nearly dooming it to their failure. Buzz droids? R2 shooting out oil and using jets to fly around? In the theater, these are the sequences where one might head back up for a refill on that popcorn. At home, a trip to the kitchen without pausing. They are so desperately stupid, attempting to shove both humor and tension into sequences that are void of both through vehicles that have no business attempting to do so. Since Lucas doesn’t toss 3P0 into this film until far later (and even then gives him nothing to do), he had to have some droid causing some manner of mischief that maybe one person somewhere might have laughed at. Once.
Nevertheless, our heroic Jedi race to the command ship to rescue the chancellor, and in spite of some wooden dialogue (one must note that Lucas is the only credited writer on the film), it’s great to see Ewan MacGregor and Hayden Christensen again, as their Obi-Wan and Anakin share a fantastic chemistry. This is much more evident on Grievous’ ship than in the chase leading up to it, benefitting from the characters sharing the same physical space. Recently, it was rumored that Christensen may pop up as Darth Vader in either the upcoming Rogue One or possibly even Episode VIII, which is quite simply welcome news. His performance is uneven at times, but again, most of this falls squarely on the shoulders of George Lucas, who saddles him with unreadable dialogue and doesn’t direct the young actor well enough. It has become somewhat fashionable to bash Christensen for this, but the film’s worst performance is arguably Natalie Portman’s, who delivers the lines like she’s reading a sixth grade drama production over-dramatically. She’s a terrific actress in her own right, but Lucas still finds a way to make her look bad. He finds a way to make Ewan MacGregor and Ian McDiarmid look bad. Sir Alec Guinness remarked that the dialogue was “rubbish” when filming A New Hope. It all has to go back to Lucas in the end, who had great ideas and great creative vision, but executed them poorly- and yes, this includes A New Hope, but to a far lesser degree.
The Jedi race to rescue the chancellor and we quickly get a re-match of Attack of the Clones, as both Anakin and Obi-Wan face off against Count Dooku once again. The battle is pretty short-lived and ends as poorly as can be for Dooku and for the audience, who are forced to endure this inconceivably contrived scene which finds Palpatine goading Anakin into killing Dooku. No. Stop it. The material is already here. It writes itself. Stop forcing things down the audience’s throat. This is Anakin’s Turn Moment # 01: Let him come to the decision himself. A bit part of Palpatine’s plot is turning Anakin against the Jedi and pulling at his fear and anger to manipulate him, yes, but we already know these emotions are raging through Anakin. The audience doesn’t need Palpatine to egg him on to do it, nor to justify it to him afterward. The second Dooku is on his knees, Anakin should just cut off his head.
Nonetheless, the Jedi grab the chancellor and the awkward script and have escape an elevator when the ship loses control and starts to plummet into Coruscant’s atmosph… what? Why is this even in the script? Wouldn’t it behoove the Jedi or someone to advise the clone army that they’re attempting a rescue of the chancellor and to not fire on the ship holding him captive? Palpatine is manipulating the galaxy on a large scale, but even he isn’t strong enough with the force to survive being inside of a starship when it explodes in orbit. What’s worse is it involves a bunch of faceless, nameless clones and droids being blown up that nobody cares about. Eventually, they get captured by the random ray shields in the random corridor on the command ship that are there because the plot requires them to be and are brought before General Grievous, the feared commander of the droid armies. He’s pretty menacing and fun to watch, but it’d been nice if we got some of the development for his character that got cut from the film (such as his murdering a Jedi knight). As he exists in this film, even though he and Obi-Wan have a great fight later, he almost feels like an afterthought.
Half of Grievous’ ship crash-lands like a colossal metal turd on the surface of Coruscant and this film still feels like it hasn’t even started yet. Dooku dies, an important development to be sure, but why did it take some fifteen to twenty minutes to get there? Palpatine and Mace Windu have an exchange about the Senate voting to continue the war as long as Grievous is still al… wait, what? Didn’t Jar Jar Binks grant you emergency powers in Clones so that you didn’t have to wait for the Senate to vote on things? You’ve still got said emergency powers since it is a pretty big plot point, so what in the world are you talking about??? The beginning of Sith is the worst prequel film, bar-none. If the rest of the film continued on this way, it’d dethrone Jedi as the biggest stinker in the entire saga.
Anakin and Padme are reunited and she gives him the news that “something wonderful has happened.” This movie’s about to get a lot better? No, she’s pregnant! The film stumbles through romantic dialogue even worse than that of Clones before it arrives at Anakin having another of his troubling dreams, this time showing that Padme will not survive the birth of her child. Fear leads to the dark side, Anakin is Vader, loses a few limbs, end of movie, right? Sadly, this is essentially the remaining plot trajectory in a nutshell, but it didn’t have to be, George. While this plot is brewing, the far-better-reason-for-Anakin-to-actively-join-his-hated-enemy-the-Sith plot is also brewing. Palpatine is full-on working to recruit Anakin and destroy the Jedi now that the Clone Wars have probably thinned out some of them, and now that said conflict has given his office virtually all of the power in the Republic. So he decides, in an attempt to widen the growing rift between Anakin and the Jedi, to shove the young Skywalker onto the Jedi Council, something that they do not like one bit. He is rightly insulted when they refuse to make him a Jedi master, and even moreso when Obi-Wan asks him to spy on the chancellor and totally calls him out for doing so. This is Anakin’s Turn Moment # 02: The Jedi ask him to spy on the chancellor.
It is relatively clear at this point that neither Anakin nor the chancellor trust the Jedi much, which is why the scene at the opera makes so much sense, even removing the context of Palpatine really being a Sith lord who is trying to take over the galaxy. Palpatine rightly points out that they asked him to violate his trust with him, and Anakin admits that his trust has been shaken. Palpy relates the similarities between the Sith and the Jedi and that “good is a point of view.” Anakin doesn’t take the bait, though, and argues that the Jedi are selfless. That’s where this scene needs to end. The entire prophecy nonsense and Padme dying, all of it, toss it out the window. You don’t need it. Even though he doesn’t outright agree with Palpatine here, you can tell he’s tossing it about in his mind, and given his shaken trust he must realize that even the Jedi are a little selfish, from his own point of view. What this does is boil down Anakin’s defection to the dark side into a necessity rather than a calculated choice. Choosing to become a Sith and kill all of the former Jedi the way it is portrayed in the film really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if he’s only becoming a Sith to save Padme. That means he agrees with the Jedi way, but since the Sith have the power to save her whereas the Jedi do not, screw it, let’s go murder all the Jedi. This hearkens back to the reviews for Menace and Clones wherein we go over how much Lucas loves to over-explain and over-elaborate on every point.
In fact, once we reach the critical moment when the war is over and Windu takes a few Jedi as cannon fodder to take down Palpatine, it works much better if Anakin actively chooses Palpatine over Windu, whom he does not trust at all. Granted, Windu has Samuel L. Jackson’s attitude behind his performance, but he’s kind of a dick to young Skywalker, and even after his very touching goodbye with Obi-Wan, Anakin is clearly frustrated by the entire council and his master. Palpatine’s little nudge at the opera is really all it should take. Anakin should show up at the duel and learn about Palpatine as he watches the two of them fight, and in the moment make the decision for himself that he trusts the chancellor more than he trusts Mace Windu and the Jedi, whom he feels have held him back at every turn up to this point (even back in Clones and what one can presume are many times between then and now). That’s Anakin’s Turn Moment # 03: He doesn’t trust the Jedi. It’s much easier to stomach what’s to come if one imagines it is a conscious choice that Anakin is making. Lucas tries way too hard throughout Episodes I-III to redeem Anakin Skywalker instead of just allowing him to be a flawed character who made some bad choices. He tries to boil down his joining the Sith as a necessary evil to try to save the woman he loves, since yeah, sometimes we do crazy things for the people we love, but this shouldn’t have to be about anyone other than Anakin. As written, it takes the blame for Vader’s subsequent actions- through that moment until he tosses Palpy down a reactor shaft in Jedi– and puts it on Padme. That’s about as big a cinematic dick move as slaughtering a whole room full of children just because your trusted mentor ordered you to otherwise he won’t divinely intervene and save your wife from dying. Let’s hope this movie doesn’t decide to… oh, fiddlesticks.
From the moment he is crowned as Darth Vader, this film launches into the stratosphere as far as tension and emotion are concerned. He storms the Jedi temple and totally slaughters a whole room full of children. Holy shit. There’s an amazing shot of Anakin on Mustafar after he has murdered the entire Separatist leadership that shows him with the evil Sith eye, but this scene needed that. This dude is gone. Yoda isn’t kidding later when he tells Obi-Wan that Anakin is gone, and that Vader has consumed him. This action makes Obi-Wan’s statement to Luke in A New Hope perfectly reasonable. How great is that moment between Obi-Wan and Yoda in the temple, when Kenobi turns to the master and asks, “Who? Who could have done this?” Who, indeed. Whatever way you slice it, once Palpatine gives him the moniker of Darth Vader, the prequels finally find that great, brilliant Star Wars that many had been waiting for- although Lucas would still try to derail it another time or two.
Sith succeeds mostly because of this. There’s no time or place as this film continues toward its climax for any kind of silly jokes and diversions, so there is no Jar Jar or C-3P0 to be found in this film. The closest it comes is R2 early on, but once the film starts to massacre the Jedi via ‘Order 66,’ it never looks back. It still has its ridiculous diversions, such as Chewbacca even being in the film in the first place, because apparently unless audiences see Chewie they won’t put two and two together that the other big tall furry guys who look exactly like him are also wookies. Also, there is a shot in the whole Order 66 sequence in which some clone troops ride up, find some dead wookies, and then decide to keep moving. The way the scene is shot, it makes it seem as if the clones are also hunting the wookies, which… what? Why? Where the hell did that come from? Whether this was Lucas’ intent or not, that’s how the scene comes across, considering we’ve just watched a two minute montage of the clones gettin’ their murder on. They aren’t Jedi, so why would Order 66 suddenly cause clones to start killing wookies?
After getting that whole child genocide thing out of the way, Vader promptly heads to Mustafar, the volcanic planet that is a setting because it’s a setting, and obliterates the separatist leaders. At last, the Clone Wars are over! Meanwhile, Yoda and Obi-Wan arrive at the Jedi temple and discover the truth, but Obi-Wan is understandably emotional here, not wanting to kill someone who has been like a brother and a best friend. The dialogue here is much too wordy, but all those dead bodies in the Jedi temple really start to seal this thing up. Sith is ostensibly a tragedy, but it is one part of a larger tragedy that has been playing out since Menace. Obi-Wan visits Padme to try to find out where he has gone, and also realizes that she must be pregnant with his child. The way he turns on her and leaves the room with a simple, “I’m so sorry,” is chilling. He stows away aboard her ship and we’re forced to see 3P0 for a moment before they land on Plot-Devic-tafar and the final battle can really begin. What purpose this planet serves is really mystifying. Why are droids scooping up buckets of lava? For what? We never see what exactly the purpose of this station is, whether they’re creating weapons or droids or whatever is going on. All the context we’ve got is “lava-scooper.” Maybe Grievous’ next plan was to dump lava over Coruscant and burn it to the ground?
The scene that follows is simultaneously the best and worst scene in the entire film. Worst because Natalie Portman’s delivery here is terrible. She somehow manages to be even more dramatic than at any other time in the entire PT, and it’s hard to tell whose fault it is at this point. That, and some of Anakin’s dialogue is also terrible. Overthrow the chancellor? Why on Earth is that even something he would suggest? This scene could’ve gone much smoother if she’d just stepped off the ship and been like, “Why did you massacre a bunch of little kids?” For that matter, why didn’t Obi-Wan bring the security recording to Padme in the first place? Nevertheless, Anakin turning against even Padme and trying to kill her completely seals the deal here. It’s a heartbreaking scene as one realizes that at this point, he’s completely gone. If only Lucas’d had the balls to kill her here once and for all instead of her dying of a broken he… oh, forget it.
The final battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin is amazing, save for the god-awful “From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!” Some critics of Hayden try to point out that other actors deliver some of Lucas’ dialogue better, but no one was ever going to sell that terrible, terrible line. The battle between Yoda and Palpatine is equally enjoyable, though why Yoda didn’t pick up his lightsaber and bounce back up the Senate and whip his evil rear-end is a mystery. They duel for a bit and he gets knocked down, so he’s like, nope, I failed, I’m goin’ to hide. You’re the most powerful Jedi master in the galaxy, hop your little green ass back up there!
And that’s the prequel trilogy. All in all, despite its dizzying lows and fantastic highs, it is the opinion of this author, at least, that they have a place in the Star Wars canon. While I wish I had the time, equipment, and energy to release my own edit of them one day, these reviews give you a pretty good idea of exactly what I’d omit. I think that’d make the prequel trilogy imperfect, but really great. As it stands now, Sith sits shakily atop two inferior predecessors and barely succeeds in not destroying the entire thing. The most important take-aways from the prequels and this film are Palpatine’s evil and Anakin’s tragic fall, and in spite of a few flaws, Revenge of the Sith delivered the perfect knockout punch to the galaxy that would take decades to recover from. Eight out of ten lightsabers.
by Nicholas Haskins
Other Reviews: Episode I, Episode II, Episode III, Episode IV, Episode V, Episode VI, Episode VII
I’ll be releasing reviews of all six episodes of the Star Wars saga in the run-up to Episode VII this December and are teaming with the great guys over at http://www.battlefrontforums.com/. Look for our next review coming soon!