The year 2005 was a dark time to be a fan of Star Wars.
The first two parts of the highly anticipated prequel trilogy had been released and had left fans feeling as if millions of voices had cried out in terror and suddenly been silenced. No sooner had fans started to recover from the trauma of The Phantom Menace then Attack of the Clones was unleashed and they were stunned to learn that a movie could be even more pointless than The Phantom Menace.
The summer of 2005 promised the release of Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith. Fans were excited because they knew that Anakin Skywalker would finally be transformed into Darth Vader but they also knew that he would still be played by Hayden Christensen. Many of us who went to see the movie on its opening weekend did so with low expectations and mixed feelings.
“WAR!” the opening title crawl of Revenge of the Sith declared, as if it was trying to reassure those of us in the audience that it would not be another boring Star Wars prequel. There was nothing in the crawl about taxation or trade routes. Instead, it was all about how the Galactic Republic was at war with separatists and how Chancellor Palpatine was being held prisoner by General Grievous. After an exciting battle on Grievous’s flagship, Anakin not only rescued Palpatine but also decapitated Christopher Lee’s Count Dooku, despite the fact that Dooku had surrendered and was unarmed. That’s when those of us watching knew that Revenge of the Sith was not going to be like the other two prequels. Revenge of the Sith was going to be darker and edgier and not just for kids. A headless Count Dooku action figure would not be sold at your local toy store.
Looking back, it is easy to forget how relieved many of us were that Revenge of the Sith was not terrible. After the bitter disappointment of the first two prequels, we were happy that Jar Jar Binks only appeared during one shot towards the end of the film and he did not speak. We were happy that Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman both finally got to give performances that justified casting actors of their caliber as Obi-Wan and Amidala. We were happy that, since Anakin and Amidala were secretly married between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, we did not have to sit through any more scenes of them falling in love. Many of us had found Hayden Christensen’s performance to be petulant in Attack of the Clones and, intentionally or not, Revenge of the Sith seemed to validate our suspicions by having both Yoda and Mace Windu say the same thing about Anakin. After the embarrassment of Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, this was a prequel that we felt we could get behind.
And we were really happy with the climatic battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin. After Anakin had gone over to the dark side, he and Obi-Wan dueled on a volcanic planet. “You were supposed to be the chosen one!” Obi-Wan shouted after chopping off Anakin’s legs. After being left to die by Obi-Wan, Anakin was rescued by Emperor Palpatine. It was only after being encased in that famous black armor that Palpatine told the new Darth Vader that Amidala had died. Darth Vader’s “Nooooooooo!” would go down in history.
At the end of the film, Jimmy Smits was seen giving an infant Luke to Owen and Beru Lars and Darth Vader and the Emperor were seen standing on the bridge of an imperial ship and looking out at the skeleton of the Death Star. For the first time since the prequels were first released, some of us applauded at the end of a Star Wars film.
When, ten years later, I rewatched Revenge of the Sith for the first time in a long while, my immediate impression was that it was nowhere close to being as good as I remembered. Without a doubt, it was still the best of the prequels but how much was that really saying? Of all the prequels, it came the closest to capturing the sense of awe and excitement that made the original trilogy (even Return of the Jedi) so entertaining but, at the same time, it still had many of the same flaws that afflicted Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. Hayden Christensen was as stiff and inexpressive as ever, as was George Lucas’s dialogue. (When Obi-Wan tells Anakin that Palpatine is evil, Anakin actually replies, “From my point of view, the Jedis are evil!” He shouts this in the middle of a light saber duel.) Even the movie’s most shocking moment, when Anakin murdered a group of children, was no longer effective because everyone in the movie insisted on calling the children “younglings.”
Throughout the entire prequel ordeal, George Lucas would insist that it was necessary to see all three of the prequels to really understand the story he was trying to tell and how it fit in with the original trilogy. However, of all the prequels, Revenge of the Sith is the only one that feels as if it adds anything to what we had already learned from watching the original trilogy. Nor is there anything to be gained from having seen the first two prequels before watching Revenge of the Sith for the first time. The main accomplishment of Revenge of the Sith was to prove that The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones were entirely unnecessary. (Revenge of the Sith actually works better if you have never seen Phantom Menace because there is no way that the Anakin played by Jake Lloyd could have grown up to be the Anakin played by Hayden Christensen.)
Why, when we originally watched Revenge of the Sith, did so many of us think that it was so much better than it actually was?
In the year 2005, we were just happy to have a Star Wars film that did not totally suck.