George Lucas finally gets back to what he does best in Revenge of the Sith: mythic storytelling. As any fanboy like myself can tell you, Lucas initially conceived of his saga after studying up on myth critic Joseph Campbell’s thoughts on mythic narratives, particularly his Hero with a Thousand Faces. In that book, Campbell argues that all the world’s varied mythologies share a basic narrative pattern, what he calls the “monomyth,” which he describes as such:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. (Campbell 30)
We see this happen in both the Prequel Trilogy and the Original Trilogy: both Anakin and Luke Skywalker leave their boring lives on desolate old Tatooine and thereafter find lots of “supernatural wonder” throughout the galaxy. The main difference between the two trilogies is that the first functions as a classic tragedy while the second functions as a classic comedy; the former ends in despair and pity while the latter ends with happiness and “boons” bestowed upon the good guys.
Overall, Revenge of the Sith accomplishes its goal of rounding out the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker’s story and laying the groundwork for the next trilogy, though the beginning of the film clunks along a bit while it tries to find a balance between good old-fashioned sci-fi fun and the darker, more serious matters at hand. For example, even though the opening crawl informs us that “evil is everywhere”–a dark statement indeed–Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen) proceed with an altogether fun rescue of Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), complete with Kenobi’s typical Han Solo-esque witticisms and his banter with his apprentice. Then again, at the climax of this adventure, during the duel with Dooku (Christopher Lee), Anakin surprisingly decapitates the Sith Lord at the otherwise unsurprising urging of Palpatine. But this unevenness only affects the first sequence of the film; once the heroes emerge from the remainder of the separatist cruiser that young Skywalker has crash-landed on Coruscant, the narrative straightens out.
Even Anakin and Padme (Natalie Portman)–whose love story and accompanying dialogue almost render Episode II unwatchable–cannot ruin the narrative. I became very worried about how the scene in which Padme reveals she is pregnant would be acted out, but while it is definitely not top-notch acting, it is at least acted competently. In fact, they manage to have an adult conversation later on about whether or not they are fighting for the right side, though to be sure, their trite, vomitous love burps do dampen up the film at times, even at the cataclysmic climax, where Padme awkwardly declares, “Anakin, you’re breaking my heart”. Even so, the most unfortunate aspect of this love story, which begins unconvincingly and tritely in Episode II and concludes here, is the fact that Anakin’s eventual fall to evil apparently results from his love for Padme. He has been having nightmarish visions, it seems, of her dying in childbirth and is thereafter told by Palpatine that the dark side can bring people back to life. The problem is that I don’t buy that Anakin actually loves Padme. Sure, he says so often enough, but it is not acted out believably. Their embraces seem forced, and even Anakin’s delivery of the lines, so whiny and clumsy, leaves his feelings in doubt. Thus, I cannot buy Anakin’s ultimate fall to the dark side. But if I tell myself–without thinking about the depiction on-screen–that Anakin becomes evil in the vain attempt to save Padme’s life, the storyline becomes wholly believable. Unlike with Episode II’s awfully written love story and even worse dialogue, this problem is not George Lucas’ fault, but instead Hayden Christensen’s–he just doesn’t show us convincingly enough that he is truly head-over-heels about Padme.
But as I said before, the love story doesn’t ruin this film. Once Anakin does fall sway to Palpatine’s lies that the dark side can prevent Padme’s death, the film becomes devastatingly dark and incredibly engaging; this is, after all, the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader that fanboys like me waited about twenty years for. Episode III makes it worth the wait.
Since Anakin has been a hero we are supposed to root for throughout the Prequel Trilogy, he has to do some pretty evil things in Revenge of the Sith to make us hate him as much as we hate Vader in the Original Trilogy. And does he ever. While still Anakin, he comes upon Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) holding Palpatine at the point of his lightsaber. On the one hand, he has Palpatine begging Anakin pathetically for help, claiming that Windu has come to kill him as part of a supposed Jedi plot to overthrow the Republic (lies, of course); on the other hand, he has Windu saying that he needs to kill Palpatine since he is the Sith Lord and therefore the one responsible for their problems throughout the past 2.5 films (all true). Eventually–in an understandably confused state of mind–he is overwhelmed by Palpatine’s feigned pathos and slices off Windu’s saber hand, at which point the Sith Lord fries Windu with his trademark force lightning and knocks him out of a nearby window. Given that Windu’s initial deflection of Palpatine’s force lightning before Anakin arrives disfigures the Sith Lord’s face into the sunken, wrinkled visage we commonly associate with the Emperor, and given that Palpatine’s voice takes on its naturally hateful and raspy tone, this whole scene has a remarkably horrid and unsettling feeling about it. This is the evil that the opening crawl alludes to–the start of it, at least.
Palpatine, claiming that Windu and the other Jedi were attempting to kill him and overthrow the Republic, announces to the senate that all Jedi are now enemies, thereby giving Order 66–the order to begin the Great Jedi Purge. What ensues is perhaps the most emotionally intense part of any of the six Star Wars films. We first see various Jedi being turned upon and murdered by their own clone troops, some attempting in vain to fight back, others remaining still in disbelief. The worst job, of course, is given to Anakin, now officially dubbed Darth Vader after assuming the role of Palpatine’s apprentice. Remember how I said we need to hate him in this film? What he does next more than accomplishes that task: Palpatine sends him to the Jedi Temple, where he is to slaughter not the adult Jedi, but the younglings. He enters the room where the children are huddled and hiding, whereupon one begs, “Help us, Master Skywalker–there are too many of them!” Vader’s response is to merely ignite his lightsaber, which in turn causes the little boy to flinch and look on with helpless horror. Horrid, horrid stuff to watch. And yet, necessary. After all, we need to hate Vader, not just dislike him. The conclusion to this emotional sequence is similarly difficult to watch: Yoda (Frank Oz), who has been on the Wookie home world of Kashyyyk leading a battle in the Clone Wars, feels the disturbance in the force and drops his walking stick as he clutches to a nearby wall for support. Too great is the disturbance for him to remain standing, and even though he is computer animated, we feel his pain.
This is ultimately why Episode III succeeds: unlike the other two prequels, Revenge of the Sith evokes real emotions from the audience, not just “oohs” and “ahhs” as we dazzle at the special effects. We feel Yoda’s pain as his fellow Jedi–young and old–are slaughtered. We feel Windu’s horror during his confrontation with Palpatine and ensuing murder. Though her acting in Episode II leaves much to be desired, even Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Padme causes us to feel her pain as she realizes that her husband and the father of her children has become a monster. Finally, George Lucas gets back to the heart of matters–specifically, the human heart. We, the audience, are finally allowed to feel again.
To be sure, emotions are a vital part of the monomyth Campbell describes, be it the overwhelming joy and happiness we feel at the conclusion of a classic comedy, or the utter despair and pity we feel at the end of a classic tragedy. The Prequel Trilogy falls into the latter category, and in its climax in Revenge of the Sith, we feel lots of despair and pity. I’ve already touched on the despair that we feel during the Jedi Purge. The pity comes about towards the end of the film: Vader and Obi-Wan have just had their penultimate lightsaber duel, which has resulted in a victory for Obi-Wan and in Vader being left an armless, burned mass of flesh. After crying despairingly to a hateful Vader, “You were the Chosen One–it was said you would destroy the Sith, not join them,” Kenobi takes a very pregnant and unconscious Padme to an operating room, where the medical droids perform an emergency delivery. They discover–as we already know–that Padme was pregnant with twins, not just one child. The pity soars in this sequence, where Padme names the babies “Luke” and “Leia” (of course!), and soon after dies. (Incidentally, this is the only section in this part of the film I take issue with: Padme dies, it seems, from a broken heart; perhaps if the love story had been written more convincingly in Episode II, I would believe this, but as it stands, I do not.) We catch a glimpse of her funeral, and then watch as Yoda, Obi-Wan, and Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits)–a senator from Alderaan who has rallied against Palpatine’s dismantling of the Republic–decide the fate of the twins. Organa says that he and his wife will take the girl, since they have long talked about adopting a daughter; Obi-Wan says he will take the boy to his family* on Tatooine. The film concludes as Obi-Wan delivers baby Luke Skywalker to young Owen and Beru Lars (Joel Edgerton and Bonnie Piesse). As Kenobi leaves, we see the Lars’, holding Luke, turn towards the setting of Tatooine’s binary suns, which is set appropriately to the same music–“Binary Sunset”–that plays in Episode IV as a more grown up Luke looks out over the setting suns. In fact, John Williams‘ ingenious evocation of the various familiar themes from the Original Trilogy in this sequence makes it all the more emotional: we know what is to come for these babies, and while it does end in happiness, there is plenty of pain to be experienced before they get there. So many emotions experienced, and all from a few bars of familiar music accompanying a single familiar image!
[*Note: Luke is only Owen’s nephew by marriage, since his grandmother, Shmi Skywalker, married Owen’s father after Anakin was born. He is nevertheless truly “Uncle Owen”.]Above: Luke Skywalker looks out over Tatooine’s binary sunset; Below: Owen and Beru Lars, holding baby Luke, look out over Tatooine’s binary sunset
Revenge of the Sith succeeds for two reasons: first, it exemplifies Lucas’ mythic storytelling, even this particular set of the myth is a tragedy. Moreover, however, this installment in the Star Wars saga succeeds because, unlike its two predecessors, it causes the audience to feel emotions, which is unfortunately a more and more uncommon occurrence in the cinema today. The sad fact is that more people would rather pay money to watch explosions and hear deafening booms than to feel anything significant (look to the latest Box Office results: the god-awful Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen is at the top, having garnered a massive $293,355,885 after only two weeks). People needn’t be afraid of their emotions since the act of feeling is merely part of the overall human experience. As it completes the story of the heroic Anakin Skywalker’s fall to evil and sets the stage for the rise of our new heroes, Revenge of the Sith diligently reminds us of this–that to feel is human.