Hate leads to suffering.
At long last, we finally have it: the first genuinely good Star Wars prequel film. Not just good, but exceptional. Took them long enough. After grudging through two movies filled with stupid characters, incoherent writing and just plain bad acting, we finally get a film that delivers on all fronts: an exciting, thrilling parable that has a surprising amount of purpose and meaning behind it. Like its early predecessors, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith defies expectations and sets new standards narratively and visually for the science-fiction genre. I have no doubt that many passionate fans will watch this movie and have fevered discussions long after the film’s closing shot.
The final part in what is the mostly failed prequel trilogy, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith takes place where the second one left off, in the heat of the Clone Wars. At the beginning of Revenge of the Sith, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are on a mission to rescue Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmind) from the clutches of General Grievous (Matthew Wood), the commander of the droid army. In the aftermath of the mission, Anakin goes home to his beloved wife Padme (Natalie Portman), where she reveals to him that she is pregnant. While he’s excited at hearing that he will be a father, Anakin keeps having visions of a terrible future that haunts him day and night. As Anakin keeps seeing these visions over and over again, he soon resolves to stop this terrible future from happening, no matter what dark consequences may come of it.
A Star Wars fan for a long time now, one of the things I love most about the series is its mythology. The light and the dark side, the jedi, the force, all of it builds up very interesting ideas of good versus evil, moral philosophy, and the power of belief. The fact that Star Wars is an exciting, entertaining, and visually spectacular franchise is one achievement. The fact that it has added context behind it makes it all the more powerful.
But one topic that’s always evaded me is how exactly Anakin became Darth Vader. His backstory was mentioned in the original movies, but was never delved much further beyond dialogue.
Then we watched the prequel movies, and we desperately wished that his backstory was limited to only dialogue.
The Phantom Menace was a boring, useless insight into Anakin’s childhood, and Attack of the Clones provided a whiny, bratty Anakin that seemed like he belonged on MTV more than he did in a Star Wars film. But the Anakin in Revenge of the Sith is a much more visceral, passionate, mature portrayal of the young jedi. He’s much more believable as a character and as a soon-to-be Darth Vader than he is in any of the previous movies.
This is praise for both Christensen and writer-director George Lucas, who is finally back to his A-game that he demonstrated having in A New Hope. The first thing that I love about this movie is the moral dilemma that it presents. In each of the Star Wars films, the main character was a do-gooding, courageously heroic archetype that fought for moral reasons rather than personal ones. Obi-Wan Kenobi in The Phantom Menace. Luke Skywalker in the original trilogy. Shoot, even Anakin in Attack of the Clones felt more like a larger-than-life movie hero than he did as a grounded character.
Here though, Anakin and his twisted arc is the central focus. There is no “light side” to his character. He’s not concerned about the ways of the force, the principles of the jedi, the balance of the universe, or anything like that. He is a very self-centered, arrogant, fearful character: one who desperately wants to change his future, but who ultimately feels powerless in doing so, no matter how hard he tries.
I am reminded of a quote from The Phantom Menace spoken by the wise Yoda (Frank Oz), one of the very few good lines in the film. “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” This film is, in many ways, the buildup and resolution of that dark path. Think of the scene in Attack of the Clones where Anakin lost his mother and lashed out in a fit of rage against the raiders who killed her. How powerless do you think he feels when he can see another loss like that coming, but he sees no real way of stopping it?
This makes Anakin much more relatable than just the movie protagonist: it makes him relatable as a human being, complete with his own needs, desires, and fears. Revenge of the Sith is, at its heart, a tragedy, a hero’s fall from grace not unlike what we see in Julius Caesar or The Godfather. The only difference between those tragedies and this one is that this movie has lightsaber duels, blaster fights, space battles, quirky droids, and John Williams, along with everything else you love about Star Wars.
There is only one other Star Wars film that I can think of that is better than Revenge of the Sith, and that is the iconic 1980 film The Empire Strikes Back. They are both masterful for similar reasons. Both are fiercely strong in understanding their mythology and message. Both are relentlessly exciting, climactic, and entertaining. And both show, very importantly, that the greatest enemy that we must overcome is not the Sith or the Dark Side. It is ourselves.