Why Revenge of the Sith Is a Good Movie Almost Ruined by Excessive Fan Service
One of the biggest problems with the new Disney Star Wars films is the way they rely on fan service for their biggest emotional moments. Whether it’s Han Solo’s death in The Force Awakens, Luke Skywalker’s surprising character arc in The Last Jedi, or the return of Emperor Palpatine in The Rise of Skywalker, the pathos of the new films comes not from the narratives of any of the new characters but instead from the nostalgic reactions Disney trusts we will have when we see old characters return. Nostalgia is, of course, an extremely powerful emotion (something our current political situation makes pretty evident), but I think it’s a poor substitute for the genuine emotional experience one can derive from a good story. It may give audiences a fleeting thrill and get them to cheer in a crowded theater, but when the rush dies away, you’re left with a story that feels hollow by comparison.
What I like about the Star Wars prequels is they very rarely rely on nostalgia for their emotional power. The Phantom Menace has a few moments, particularly when R2-D2, C-3PO, and Yoda each return, but these characters ultimately play very minor roles in the movie’s narrative. Attack of the Clones meanwhile had almost no nostalgic references to the original trilogy, except for the obvious fact that the clone troopers are reminiscent of the original stormtroopers — though as I argued in my last piece analyzing the film, this connection creates an extremely effective meta-level sinister tension, and certainly not the kind of cheery nostalgia the new films rely so heavily on. The only exception in Clones is a brief moment at the end when it’s revealed that the Geonosians are building the Death Star. It’s an unnecessary moment that takes away from the emotional tension of the movie’s climax, and a perfect example of the weakness of fan service: not only is it a poor substitute for the actual emotional resonance of a narrative, but it can even undercut the emotion the audience is feeling. As far as I’m concerned, a movie should stand on its own and not try to create false pathos though nostalgic recognition.
Revenge of the Sith, the third and final film of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, unfortunately suffers from an excess of fan service. For all its wonderful moments, including an entertaining opening sequence, the surprisingly moving Order 66 montage, and Anakin and Obi-Wan’s final, operatic battle, the movie is bloated by attempts at cheap nostalgic pathos, whether it’s Yoda’s detour to the Wookiee planet or the almost comical attempt at the end to tie up loose ends and make sure we understand that the babies are in fact named Leia and Luke. Unfortunately, these moments detract from what could be a great film and make Revenge of the Sith the least effective of the prequels — and they also point to the flaws that will plague the franchise once Disney gets ahold of it.
All that being said, I think Revenge of the Sith has one of my favorite opening shots of any Star Wars film. As expected, we begin by panning down to a ship, in this case one of those red Republic ships that looks eerily like a Star Destroyer (notice how Lucas is subtle with these visual connections — Disney, by contrast, would have made it a literal Star Destroyer in yet another pitch to nostalgia) — but then, instead of cutting away, the camera holds on the ship, and we see two smaller fighters gliding along the back of its hull to a military-style rendition of John Williams’ Force theme before sweeping over the side and giving us a view of a battle in progress over the skies of Coruscant.
This opening shot is the longest single shot in all of Star Wars, and perhaps one of the most magnificent. We follow our two heroic fighters as they glide between massive ships and through explosions and take in the sweep of the battle — and only after about a minute and a half does the camera close in, and we see R2-D2 and Anakin in one of the fighters. This shot once again reinforces my theory that Star Wars is a ballet. We don’t even know who’s in the fighters at first, but we’re still compelled by their sweeping movement, because Lucas knows how to direct space flight so well — he takes it slow, keeps his camera controlled, and let’s us enjoy the aesthetic beauty of flight. J.J. Abrams, as I’ve said before, would never have had the patience for such a controlled and beautiful shot.
The first thirty minutes, then, give us a sequence reminiscent of The Phantom Menace and a return to Star Wars’ comedic roots: Obi-Wan and Anakin fly into the main Trade Federation ship to rescue Palpatine. Along the way, they slaughter silly battle droids, make light-hearted banter, and even get stuck on an elevator that R2 can’t seem to get to move in the right direction. At first it seems unclear what a sequence this silly is doing in a movie that promises to be extremely dark, but I think what’s thematically important is the presence of so many droids. In the original trilogy, droids were taken as a given, a fact of the universe, but in the prequels, Lucas has become interested in the difference between droids and humans. We saw this theme developed in Attack of the Clones, and we’re going to see more of it in this film, which features a droid villain, General Grievous, who coughs for some reason and thinks of himself as a Jedi, and of course, by the end, an actual droid-Jedi, Darth Vader. As a result, I think all this robot symbolism is important, the droid antics and jokes a comedic reflection of the darker themes to come, when Anakin will become “more machine than man.”
When this opening comedic sequence ends and Obi-Wan and Anakin have successfully rescued Palpatine, we’ve thus established two things: Anakin’s increasingly evil tendencies (mercilessly beheading Dooku), and, more subtly but I think more importantly, the thematic differences between droids and humans. General Grievous, who we’re introduced to in this sequence, is basically a super battle droid — and the battle droids, remember, have been the primary antagonists of the prequel trilogy, in The Phantom Menace the slapstick bad guys for the Jedi to dispatch, in Attack of the Clones part of the army on Geonosis that the clones and the Jedi defeat. In this film, though, Grievous and the droids are just a comic ruse — in reality, Anakin is the film’s true villain.
Thus, what feels like a random and unrelated sequence in the film’s first thirty minutes is actually a necessary comic counterweight to the rest of the narrative and essential in setting up the film’s primary thematic duality.
In Act Two, things get a little more serious: Anakin has his dream of Padme dying in childbirth, and the film becomes about attempting to stop fate. Fate, of course, is what’s driving this whole trilogy: from the moment we see little Anakin in The Phantom Menace, we know what will happen to him. It’s the same emotion that gives a Greek tragedy its power, our desire for things to be different pulling against our knowledge that they won’t be. And as with a Greek tragedy, Revenge of the Sith is at its best when it gives us glimpses of potential escapes from that fate, when it makes clear that Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side wasn’t simply inevitable but the result of a series of choices that could have been different. When Anakin goes to Yoda and asks him about the meaning of his dream and Yoda brushes him off with unhelpful advice about avoiding emotional attachments, we wonder whether things would have been different if he and the other Jedi had been more understanding. Similarly, when Anakin asks Mace Windu if he can join him in arresting the Chancellor and Windu brushes him off and tells him he doesn’t fully trust him, we wonder whether things would have been different if Anakin had felt more included. It’s these moments of choice, of characters making the wrong choices, that give tragedy its true power. If Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side was simply an inevitability, a teleological descent from innocence to Darth Vader, there would be no pathos in watching him fall. The tragedy comes when the narrative presents us with the possibility of a different path.
It’s at this point in the movie, though, that we get the unnecessary fan-service subplot of Yoda going to the Wookiee planet and helping Chewbacca fight off the separatists. It’s a terrible, wasteful interlude, not just because it has no real narrative purpose but also because it misses the point of what matters in this trilogy. The viewers have no emotional investment in Chewbacca or the Wookiees except for nostalgia for the original trilogy. Moreover, Yoda is actually an important character in this film — he is the leader of the Jedi, and the Jedi’s failure is his failure too — but by taking him away from Coruscant on a fan-service detour to the Wookiee planet, the film essentially removes him from its key narrative. How much more tragic could it have been if Yoda was there on Coruscant to witness the city’s fall to Palpatine! As if to add insult to injury, Lucas’s directing of the scenes on the Wookiee planet also seems half-hearted, as if he knows this is all stupid: unlike his other battle scenes, this one has no tension, no character moments, not even the elegant ballet I so valued in his direction. It’s just explosions with no arc, random lights flashing, etc. — like something you’d see in one of the new Disney films.
Obi-Wan’s subplot with General Grievous also feels somewhat thinly developed. The planet Grievous is hiding on, Utapau (or whatever), has none of the depth of Kamino or Geonosis from Attack of the Clones, and it feels like a stand-in location Lucas intended on developing later, but never actually did. When Obi-Wan confronts Greivous, meanwhile, it has neither the tension and emotional charge of Attack of the Clones, nor the comedy of The Phantom Menace. It just feels like filler while we wait for the real stuff to happen. I understand some of the thematic stuff Lucas is going for — when Obi-Wan rides a lizard , it’s meant to be a contrast to Grievous’s droid machine, refinancing the duality of droid vs living being. And Grievous, we learn, actually has a human heart and lungs (thus the coughing), and Obi-Wan is able to defeat him by shooting him there — this is Lucas being symbolic, reminding us that the heart is vulnerable, perhaps a reflection of how later all our protagonists will end up with broken hearts. The scene also mirrors Obi-Wan’s defeat of Anakin, especially when Grievous catches fire at the end. So essentially, we have a comic version of the fight at the end of the movie. Still, I’m not sure if the structure fully works here, mainly because most of this fight doesn’t have the buildup or tension other sections of the prequels did.
The movie begins to improve once Anakin learns Palpatine is a Sith, and especially when Mace Windu confronts Palpatine. Yes, it’s slightly comical how easily Palpatine kills the other Jedi; but when he shouts “Unlimited power!” as he electrocutes Mace Windu, we get a glimpse into George Lucas’s mind: it’s over-the-top and bombastic, but there’s no denying it’s exhilarating too, especially as Windu, the most arrogant of all the Jedi, flies out the window and into the Coruscant night.
The Order 66 montage, which marks the end of Act Two and the beginning of Act Three, is the best part of the film thus far. We get a surprising sweep of the galaxy, vistas and environments we’ve never seen before. They’re wondrous backdrops, full of amazing color, meticulously detailed for such short brief shots, but the beauty is of course contrasted with the reality of what’s going on, the Jedi being slaughtered as John Williams’ haunting score plays us through the montage. As with so much in Star Wars, without the music, this section wouldn’t have its power. And while we don’t know most of the Jedi we see dying, the sequence is affecting for the sheer scope and length of it. So many planets, so many Jedi. It reminds us that the galaxy is far greater than what we’ve seen in these three films, which have been like snapshots in Lucas’s grand universe. It’s a montage that encompasses the whole tragedy of the three films, the event we’ve been building to, the failure and destruction of the Jedi. And the complexity here is that, despite the fact that the Jedi have been portrayed as aloof, distant, reckless, hubristic, we feel the loss and the tragedy in this moment. I think the strongest aspect is reflecting on how this all connects to our present. We can decry liberalism for its hubris and failure, but the idea of it being gunned down by authoritarianism is a genuine tragedy. And so, if the Jedi represent Western liberalism, which I argue they do, then their failure and loss is a tragedy that should resonate with us, especially in 2019.
Eventually, the film builds to Padme confronting Anakin on the planet Mustafar. With a backdrop of coursing lava and volcanic eruptions, we get the personal dramas we’ve been building to for three films: Anakin, Padme, and Obi-Wan, our three protagonists, in their climactic moment. Yes, the dialogue is heavy handed and the lava background a bit on the nose, but remember, this a SPACE OPERA, and this scene is the operatic climax — and Lucas even demonstrates some sophisticated sense of story structure here (even if his dialogue leave something to be desired). Anakin and Obi-Wan don’t just start fighting, but first, Padme has to reject Anakin. This is such a crucial moment, because it makes Padme more than just a victim, but an actor in this tragedy, a character with agency, someone who is therefore partially responsible for what ultimately happens. Once again, if fate is driving this whole trilogy, then the power rests not in where we ultimately get to, because that is already obvious, but how we get there, the moments of choice within that fated ending that give our characters dignity and purpose. Padme rejecting Anakin, telling him “[he’s] going down a path [she] can’t follow” gives her character a necessary dignity.
When Obi-Wan and Anakin fight, we get some quite obvious parallels with George W. Bush, and it reminds us that this is after all a film of the early 2000s. “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy!” Anakin petulantly shouts, a variation on Bush’s famous line. “Only the Sith deal in absolutes,” Obi-Wan chides. Lucas isn’t subtle, of course, but as I’ve said before, subtlety is overrated, and not really the aesthetic we should want in a space opera.
And then, the battle. The first thing of note the lightsaber colors. Lucas could have given Anakin a red lightsaber, but no — it’s still blue, blue vs blue, brothers fighting. It’s a sign that there is still good in him, but it also adds to the tragedy of it all. Two equals, two friends, the political becoming personal. Juxtaposed against this, then, we have Palpatine vs Yoda, in the Senate chamber. The symbolism here is very on the nose, but who cares. Palpatine hurling Senate pods at Yoda is a fantastic visual representation of the destruction of the Republic, the hubristic Jedi master who failed to see the Sith at the very heart of the political order he sought to protect pelted by democracy’s wreckage.
When Obi-Wan wins his battle (“I have the high ground!”), the film handles it all perfectly: one quick slice as Anakin jumps, and it’s all over, a whole three moves of conflict done in a single moment. The tragedy, of course, is that though Obi-Wan wins, the Republic still loses. Obi-Wan thus becomes as tragic a hero as his mentor Qui-Gon, forced to kill his brother, his apprentice, his friend — and yet, in the end, it changes nothing. The speech he shouts about how Anakin was the chosen one is perhaps the best piece of dialogue in the film: “You were my brother Anakin, and I loved you.”
And so, I have to say, George Lucas really did it— against all odds, he achieved the pathos he sought when we first met Anakin as a little boy on Tatooine.
The problem, then, is that the film keeps going. It has fifteen more minutes of fan service. Why? Why do we need to see Padme deliver her babies and then name them? Will the fans forget that she is Luke and Leia’s mother if she doesn’t speak their names out loud? And why do we need to see them end up on Tatooine and Alderaan? Why does Bail Organa need to be in this movie at all? Why do we need references to Qui-Gon and force-ghosting? Just let it all end here, at its highest emotional moment! Let us linger on the shot of Anakin burning and Obi-Wan walking away to the backdrop of volcanos, and then give us a quick epilogue sequence of Palpatine arriving and pulling him from the lava. We don’t need to see the Darth Vader mask. It would be so much more powerful if we didn’t and instead just saw Anakin on the operating table, his charred body being fused with wires, our tragic hero and villain becoming a droid.
Ultimately, what makes Revenge of the Sith an inferior movie to The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones is the same tendency that totally ruins the new Disney movies — the fan service moments designed to trigger nostalgic feelings.Why can’t the individual emotions of the movie be enough? In this case, I think they genuinely are, if Lucas simply let them be. Don’t force the connections to A New Hope. Let this trilogy stand on its own.
The only good moment from these final fifteen minutes is Padme’s funeral, because it’s a scene that’s fully a part of the world of the prequels. There are no fan-service references to other things, no cheesy attempt to bridge the trilogies — just one final shot of Naboo, in darkness now, the lush Garden of Eden fallen into shadow, a final shot of Jar Jar and Boss Nass among the solemn procession, while dirge-like music plays in the background.