To round out the “Star Wars” film reviews on my blog, I thought it would be fun to look back at my review of “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” from May 20, 2005, in the Brainerd (Minn.) Dispatch. This was my first “Star Wars” movie review for a professional daily paper, so it’s written for a broad audience.
At the time, it was the hardest review I had to write. Sometime between 2002 and 2005 – perhaps because I became a “professional” journalist — I stopped making fan excuses for “Star Wars” movies and tried to set aside my bias. Plus, plain and simple, I didn’t think “Sith” was very good. Although I love the “Sith” novelization and the bulk of the “Clone Wars” material, my views on the film itself haven’t changed much since that midnight premiere. Still, I’ve included a few footnotes to expand on these ideas.
Last ‘Star Wars’ is a downer (but not in a good way) (1)
By JOHN HANSEN
may 20, 2005
Gearing up for “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith,” fans perhaps watched a marathon of episodes 1-2 and 4-6. It probably felt like there was something missing between parts two and four.
In “Sith,” of course, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) transitions from a big-hearted – albeit headstrong – youth to the unblinking murderer of an entire planet’s population as Darth Vader. The big question: Why does this good kid turn evil?
As a lifelong “Star Wars” fan, it breaks my heart (2) to say writer-director George Lucas’ answer is not satisfying.
And that’s not the only problem with “Sith,” which adds up to less than the sum of its impressive space battles (3) and lightsaber duels. The first two prequels, “The Phantom Menace” (1999) and “Attack of the Clones” (2002), were strong character pieces where we became endeared to Jedis Anakin and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin’s secret wife Padme (Natalie Portman). (And to be honest, I liked Jar Jar and Watto quite a bit too.)
It’s no fault of the actors (McGregor is especially great), but in “Sith” the characters take a back seat to the goal of cramming too many plot points into too little time. Judging by the progress of Padme’s pregnancy, the film takes place over the span of several months, but the pacing is so rapid-fire that it feels like a day (4).
“Sith” is best appreciated if you look at it from the points of view of Obi-Wan, Padme and Yoda, for whom Anakin’s switch to the dark side is a genuinely shocking tragedy. But the main character’s behavior is a head-scratcher, especially since he has been established as intelligent and insightful (5). Anakin succumbs to the manipulations of Sith Lord Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) far too easily. It seems like an entire movie is missing between two scenes in the middle of this film (6).
Lucas knows how to frame a story: Sidious’ plan to wipe out the Jedi and name himself Emperor is undeniably clever and creepily simple. “Sith” addresses all those little plot points necessary to sync the prequels with the originals, such as why C-3PO didn’t remember Tatooine in “Episode IV” – it’s explained in one line by Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) (7), a nice addition to the hero pantheon despite limited screen time.
“Sith,” which includes decapitations and charred bodies and other stuff you probably don’t want your kids to see (8), certainly features the most gruesome images of the six films. Nonetheless, the mood and pacing don’t feel right. We get a parade of lightsaber duels (Obi-Wan and Anakin vs. Dooku, Obi-Wan vs. new villain General Grievous, Mace Windu vs. Darth Sidious, Yoda vs. Sidious and, of course, the surrogate father-son showdown between Obi-Wan and Anakin) (9). We get to see an old friend (Chewbacca, who it turns out had more of a connection to Jedis than we thought).
But “Sith” needed grit. It needed gravity. Frankly, it needed the frazzled, world-beating Lucas who directed the original “Star Wars” nearly 30 years ago.
To the credit of today’s Lucas, he bows out with scenes referencing the “A New Hope” of “Episode IV” and swelling with John Williams’ music. It’s a sequence fans have dreamt about for decades, and it brought a tear to my eye (10). But what’s really sad is that this bittersweet grace note isn’t enough to wash away “Sith’s” sour taste.
(1) I guess there was a small window of time between 2005 and 2008 when it genuinely seemed like “Episode III” would be the last “Star Wars” film. But even before Disney bought Lucasfilm, we got “The Clone Wars” movie in 2008, plus the 3-D release of “The Phantom Menace” in 2012, with the rest of the saga scheduled to follow in 3-D before Disney canceled those plans (indeed, “Attack of the Clones” 3-D was completed, but it wasn’t released to wide audiences).
(2) Not an intended pun about Padme’s death, I don’t think.
(3) And even the space battles are kind of superficial. The first shot of the Battle of Coruscant bugged me the very first time I saw it. We see one ship with nothing behind it, then the camera zooms toward the ship (blocking out the background). When we see the background again, there is a massive battle going on. It’s a visual lie that can only happen when a movie is made in a computer, and it’s a bad note to start the movie on.
(4) In the novelization, it feels like a week or more. On a related note, the novelization also says Anakin hadn’t seen Padme for five months prior to the events of “Sith.” So that explains why he didn’t know she was pregnant. Still, she’s a famous Senator who is close to full term; you gotta figure the HoloNet gossip shows are going berserk dropping theories about the father’s identity, and also probably saying a Senator having a baby out of wedlock (as far as they know) is scandalous. The novelization makes it clear that Obi-Wan and Anakin – mere Jedi soldiers — are famous galaxy-wide, so Padme certainly would be too.
(5) In my internal argument of whether “Clones” or “Sith” is worse, I debate whether the Anakin-Padme romance or Anakin committing to Palpatine’s rule rings more hollow. I lean toward the latter.
(6) This is a prime example of the film’s pacing problem. To be fair, the film does include a sequence where Anakin envisions Padme’s death, then rushes to his speeder. But the novelization goes into his thoughts more, then he storms past Shaak Ti on his way to his speeder. So Anakin’s tumultuous state is clear in the book.
(7) Still, the novelization better explains why Bail wanted Threepio’s mind wiped. He gives the order right after Threepio says he can’t wait till Leia grows up and he can tell her all about her parents.
(8) My nod to the fact that this is a family newspaper.
(9) Before the film’s release, we knew about most of these duels from the trailers or from common fan knowledge about the backstory. Did anyone think Obi-Wan and Anakin wouldn’t have a lightsaber duel? Still, 2005 marked the early days of spoiler culture (which has now gotten completely out of hand, as mentioning plot points of older releases is now considered taboo in some circles). One acquaintance told me that listing the lightsaber duels was a bit of a spoiler. He was probably right.
(10) Still, the montage should’ve had Yoda, Obi-Wan and Baby Luke stopping off at Dagobah before Obi-Wan continues on to Tatooine with the child. Even in the deleted scene, it’s only Yoda who lands on Dagobah. If Luke had been there even briefly, it would’ve made “There’s something familiar about this place” into a much cooler line. Similarly, if Padme had spent just a bit of time cradling Leia before she died, it might’ve given a ring of truth to Leia’s “Return of the Jedi” line about having vague memories of her biological mother.