After the disaster that was Attack of the Clones, there could be very little expected of Revenge of the Sith. While this notion could hardly function as a good omen, the dearth of enthusiasm opened opportunities for Star Wars: Episode III to do something rather different for the Star Wars series, tying the latest installment to the original with a subtext unbecoming of an epic science-fantasy space opera.
Subtext? In a Star Wars film? Read on.
Three years after Count Dooku beat up on Obi-Wan and Anakin, Chancellor Palpatine is kidnapped, allowing the opportunity for a re-match that sees an empowered Anakin overtake the aging Sith lord. However, Anakin has become a pupil of both the Jedi and Palpatine around the same time he begins fearing for the life of his wife Padmé, and with the silver-tongued Palpatine constantly in his ear, Anakin takes progressively brash action until he becomes the instrument of the Galactic Senate’s destruction.
Consider for a moment that this is the film where we truly develop the backstory of A New Hope. When Revenge of the Sith opens, Anakin has yet to turn to the dark side, and so much of the galactic power structure remains intact. These seismic revolutions have yet to shape a series that has become predicated on the sale of action figures utilizing childlike spectacle, but Revenge of the Sith is the least franchise-friendly Star Wars film and the first to be rated PG-13. While this may not elicit a chorus of stunned gasps from more conservative viewing groups, it bears mentioning that this is the most unequivocally violent Star Wars film by a long shot.
Throughout Revenge of the Sith, there are no less than five major lightsaber battles, leaving no less than eight severed appendages in their wake. Oh yes, the spectacle is back, and while the space battles leave something to be desired, it can hardly be argued that the fencing face-offs in Star Wars have always been the crux of the strategic and emotional conflicts for each film. Though no single fight matches the duels in The Phantom Menace or Return of the Jedi, and there’s no topping the central fight in Empire Strikes Back, each conflict in Revenge of the Sith compounds until Obi-Wan and Anakin duke it out over a river of lava. By this point the bad guys have already won, but Obi-Wan makes it clear that their long-term victory is far from certain.
In the background, the place where the plot often plays out in Star Wars films, Padmé watches in horror as the Republic dissolves into an Empire. A perceived growing threat is dealt with by enacting a series of questionable laws that echo Benjamin Franklin’s famous formulation: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Of course, Padmé’s poorly delivered rejoinder hardly does Franklin justice: “So this is how liberty dies… with thunderous applause.”
Yes, Lucas still has yet to figure out the whole dialogue thing. But he’s prepared to use it as a bludgeoning tool to beat us over the head with fervent political commentary. His obvious rage at the USA PATRIOT Act play out with his logistical shortcomings, but nevertheless skewer the notion of sacrificing liberty for temporary safety. Taking the time out of his precious merchandising opportunities to school the electorate on their backward enthusiasm for their own subjugation is definitively not in the capitalist playbook. Has Lucas ever been this unfettered in his political outrage?
Yes. And you needn’t look any further than the first Star Wars film.
Though it was not inherently conceived as a political film, the ties A New Hope shares with the Vietnam War are well documented. Lucas’ cultural indignation does not often feature a point sharp enough to pierce, but they impose a formidable blow. Blockbuster entertainment this successful featuring such brutal commentary cannot be expected to endure, but after years of using his Star Wars series as a tool to further a financial empire, Lucas’ redirection toward political outrage not only redeem Revenge of the Sith, they (barely) redeem the prequel trilogy.
The cinematography and editing are still substandard. The dialogue is only slightly better than awful. The actors still look like they have no clue what they’re supposed to be doing. In spite of this, Revenge of the Sith doesn’t feel like a film going through the motions. Lest we forget, Anakin graduates from massacring the morally culpable Tusken Raiders in Attack of the Clones to the slaughter of innocent children.
Revenge of the Sith is a hot, angry mess of enormous set-pieces, terrific special effects, and truly questionable conception. But in spite of these developments, it seems to have accomplished the impossible: it brought George Lucas back from a precipice of complete moral bankruptcy. Less than a decade later, he would sell the series rights to Disney, who would then commission a new series of films to capitalize on the success and mythos of the original Star Wars film. Would this be for capitalistic means? Absolutely. Disney will rake in untold billions with The Force Awakens. But as for George Lucas and his $4 billion dollar payday? He’s donating the majority of his earnings to educational initiatives.
At the outset of his career, George Lucas was an idealistic filmmaker looking to redeem cheesy space operas. His success ultimately fostered his greed, but the eruption of a society passively accepting being stripped of its freedoms spurred the rebellious spirit that saw him make these films in the first place.
Is Revenge of the Sith a great Star Wars film? Decidedly not. But the connective tissue drawn to the first entry, in both plot and theme, elevate it to a level that its predecessors may have made seem impossible, proving that the Force has been with Star Wars. Always.