I have written about this movie before, but have decided that it warrants revisiting and that my thoughts, which I’d like to think have matured since then, also call for a bit of reformulation. There were two Star Wars movies which I specifically remember disliking more than the others when I was younger: The Empire Strikes Back, and The Revenge of the Sith. Once can arguably define these two as the darkest installments of their respective trilogies, and that was certainly the principal reason for my disliking them. It strikes me as funny now to see that The Empire Strikes Back is widely regarded among knowledgeable audiences as the superior of all the Star Wars movies, and it is also curious to see that Revenge of the Sith is not mentioned kindly in many places, or at least not as much as I thought it would be.
I can understand The Phantom Menace being much derided, for as soon as the obnoxiously opinionated young Anakin Skywalker first appears the film instantly loses any respectability and credibility that might have come inherent with Liam Neeson. Attack of the Clones, too, is not a very good movie (more on that later). But Revenge of the Sith—in Revenge of the Sith, there are no glaring faults that fatally undermine the solidity of the whole enterprise. It is, by any definition, a perfectly respectable movie which, yes, does not infer that it is beyond reproach. You can poke plenty of holes in it, but doing so would be spiteful, because this is a movie that does not deserve your disparagement. One can only admire at the intricately, tightly woven strands of the story which ties together the moral and ideological corruption of our tormented anti-hero and the toppling of a Republic by a scheming politician, the stunning scope of a story which takes us across worlds and yet brings it all back to a variation of Anakin Skywalker’s line “I won’t lose you the way I lost my mother.”
Certainly, credit has to go to Hayden Christensen, whose dubiously staged scenes of “seduction” with Natalie Portman in Attack of the Clones were so idiotic they destroyed whatever virtues might have been stuck in that film otherwise. But Christensen, who plays Skywalker, is older now, and now that his character is slowly being drawn to the dark side and not merely a petulant, obsessed teenager, Christensen’s weirdly intense—not quite wooden, as each word he pronounces seems to drip with long-smothered emotion, but not quite organic—way of acting somehow makes more sense. You believe his titanic struggle against the pervasive influence of the dark side, as manifested in Ian McDiamird’s Palpatine, all murmured insinuation, but you also understand his boiling discontent with the Jedi Council. It’s not even that the Jedi Masters, including Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu, regard him with barely disguised wariness, but that they do it so infuriatingly coolly, that they come off so unblinkingly passive and even ignorant.
Then again, you take a step back and see that there was really little the Jedi Council could do to prevent the inevitable temptation of Skywalker. He was always fated to fall, and the Jedi Council only precipitated his fall by stoking his simmering frustration. I’m reminded of the TV show Rome and the layers of complexities that lay between Julius Caesar and Brutus before the famous betrayal; both sense the danger hovering in the air, the mutual mistrust and the anger that dares not yet erupt, and yet both are uncertain. Brutus has been tempted, but he is unwilling to commit himself fully to treachery, still clinging to his last vestiges of loyalty and integrity. It might have worked out all right if then the unmindful Caesar—much like the Jedi Council—didn’t elect to err on the side of caution (in Rome, he pointedly appoints Brutus to an insultingly inconsequential governorship, while in Revenge of the Sith, Mace Windu holds off on fully trusting Anakin until it’s too late), providing the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.
I think the ultimate reason why it’s truly fascinating to watch Anakin’s undoing is because it feels and is familiar. His story is a timeless tragedy of biblical, mythological proportions, one that has been traveling down our cultural highways for centuries. And George Lucas’s interpretation isn’t shabby at all. In fact, it’s pretty spectacular.