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This Week in Genre History: Revenge of the Sith was George Lucas' (somewhat) grand finale
Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world's greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.
After all the opinions rendered, all the tickets bought, and all the memes created, it can be hard to remember that the movies commonly known as "the prequels" were, not that long ago, actually a pretty exciting prospect. When George Lucas announced in 1994 that he was going to work on a new trilogy that took place before the events of Star Wars, there was reason to be hopeful that the man who masterminded this galaxy of Droids and Jedis and Wookiees could recapture that magic. As an unnamed studio chief put it at the time, "Somebody else doing Star Wars means nothing; George Lucas doing it means everything."
But it wasn't simply that Lucas was revisiting this beloved property more than a decade after Return of the Jedi hit theaters — it was that he had a pretty fascinating idea at its center. If the original trilogy told the triumphant story of Luke Skywalker fulfilling his destiny, what if these new films chronicled a darker tale of personal evolution? What if we found out how Darth Vader ... became Darth Vader?
"You learn that Darth Vader isn't this monster," Lucas said in a 2005 interview. "He's a pathetic individual who made a pact with the Devil and lost. And he's trapped. He's a sad, pathetic character, not an evil big monster. I mean, he's a monster in that he's turned to the Dark Side and he's serving a bad master and he's into power and he's lost a lot of his humanity. In that way, he's a monster, but beneath that, as Luke says in Return of the Jedi, early on, 'I know there's still good in you. There's good in you, I can sense it.' Only through the love of his children and the compassion of his children, who believe in him, even though he's a monster, does he redeem himself."
What sometimes gets forgotten about the prequels is the conceptual brilliance of their central conceit. Playing out as a grand tragedy, the saga of a good man gone bad, this second trilogy chronicled the fall of Anakin Skywalker and the crushing of the idealism he'd once harbored. No franchise had ever devoted so much time to trying to humanize its principal villain. It was incredibly gutsy — inspired even.
The problem, of course, was that Lucas' ambitions badly outpaced his execution. The first film in the trilogy, 1999's The Phantom Menace, was a commercial colossus but a critical fiasco, while 2002's Attack of the Clones was considered to be a step up only because it arguably wasn't as bad. But even so, fans held out hope for the third installment. After all, this would be when we saw Anakin actually turn into Darth Vader — this was the moment the whole trilogy was built around. Those first two movies were just a warmup, we told ourselves — Revenge of the Sith would be the main event.
At this stage, there's probably no point in trying to convince you about whether Revenge of the Sith is a masterpiece, a fiasco, misunderstood, underrated, good enough, fairly forgettable, or just plain terrible. Those wars were waged long ago. But it is worth pointing out that when the film arrived in multiplexes on May 19, 2005, it permanently marked the end of an era in Star Wars, one in which Lucas was the guy calling the shots. We didn't know that at the time, of course, but that knowledge now adds a little poignancy to a rewatch — partly because it was his last go-round and partly because Revenge of the Sith, despite its strengths, didn't quite live up to the promise of what this trilogy could have been. Lucas wanted to tell the origin story of one of cinema's greatest bad guys. He didn't quite pull it off.
Why was it a big deal at the time? The obvious answer is "Because it was a Star Wars movie." But because the public reaction to the first two films in the trilogy hadn't exactly been glowing, there might have been slight concern on the part of 20th Century Fox — which put out the prequels (as it had the original trilogy) — that some of the luster was gone. Remember, Attack of the Clones was the first Star Wars film not to be its year's highest-grossing movie. (The 2002 box-office champ was Spider-Man.) Still, Revenge of the Sith was expected to deliver the big payoff, giving us the climactic battle between mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and pupil Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), which will send them down very different paths. Audiences wanted to see that.
Not that fans were sold on Christensen. Although he'd been excellent in the 2003 true-life drama Shattered Glass, his performance as Anakin in Attack of the Clones was lacking, depicting the budding Jedi as a moody, whiny adolescent who didn't have much romantic spark with Natalie Portman's Padmé. Viewers had disliked Jake Lloyd's Annie in The Phantom Menace, and Christensen hadn't been much better. This guy was gonna end up being Darth Vader? No doubt Christensen heard from his detractors, but he tried his best to ignore it.
"[T]o be honest the only pressure that I have really focused on was the pressure to please George," Christensen said around Revenge of the Sith's release. "As much as I felt that I wanted to keep the fans happy, I was so indebted to George when he offered me the role that my biggest concern was making sure that he was happy with the work. ... If you try to worry about the larger population at hand ... you'd drive yourself crazy."
But with that anticipation also came a certain amount of pressure. Ever since 1977, fans had wondered about the backstory between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader, and Revenge of the Sith was meant to provide all those answers. Plus, Lucas had to stick the landing by giving us an ending that justified a storyline that would, eventually, bring us to the events of Star Wars. Who cared if the first two films in the trilogy were mediocre? If Lucas managed to pull that off, all would be forgiven.
What was the impact? It's funny to think that Revenge of the Sith came out during a time when not every blockbuster grossed a literal billion dollars (or more) worldwide. Still, the movie pulled in $868 million globally, easily becoming 2005's top earner. And critics were generally kind, acknowledging it as the best chapter in the prequel trilogy. Nonetheless, it was telling that Revenge of the Sith was popular without necessarily being zeitgeisty. The film earned only one Oscar nomination — for makeup, getting snubbed in the visual effects category — and quickly had to contend with a general cultural impression that the movie (like all the prequels) had been disappointing.
You could measure that disappointment in different ways. Portman, for instance, admitted that the prequels had hurt her reputation. "[E]veryone thought I was a horrible actress," she recalled. "I was in the biggest-grossing movie of the decade, and no director wanted to work with me." And then you had sci-fi fanatic Patton Oswalt devoting part of his 2007 stand-up album Werewolves and Lollipops to a bit in which he imagines going back in time and murdering Lucas so he can't make the prequels and, therefore, ruin Star Wars' legacy.
The segment, amusingly titled "At Midnight I Will Kill George Lucas With a Shovel," was really funny, but Oswalt's wrong that it's inherently uninteresting to learn about how the characters you loved became those people. Certainly Hollywood agreed, becoming increasingly invested in telling origin stories of iconic pop-culture figures. Everything from Hannibal Rising to X-Men: First Class to Joker can be seen as a way for studios to extend properties by going back to the beginning. Suddenly, viewers were beset by films like Oz the Great and Powerful and 300: Rise of an Empire, whose sole purpose (other to cash in) was to say, "Here's how that thing you liked started." Next week's Cruella is just the latest example of this ongoing trend: Prequels may be creatively uninspiring, but they make money.
As for Lucas, Revenge of the Sith was, to date, the last film he's written or directed. Before The Phantom Menace, he hadn't helmed a movie since 1977's Star Wars, as he handed the reins over to others for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. He was often viewed as a visionary producer and savvy idea guy — he helped fuel the Indiana Jones films, which his good friend Steven Spielberg directed — but not necessarily a natural-born screenwriter or director, although his American Graffiti and THX 1138 are both quite good. Unfortunately, the prequels didn't do much to silence those assumptions.
You can argue that, with the prequel trilogy, Lucas revolutionized the concept of creating fake environments for the actors that would later be rendered digitally, but at this early stage of the technology, it mostly produced zombie-fied performances from an accomplished cast. ("[A] lot of the stunts have to deal with running from and fighting with imaginary creatures," Portman said in 2002, "which was somewhat ... amusing. ... [Y]ou get surprisingly good when 90 percent of your shots are with a tape mark against a blue screen.")
And Lucas' struggles with crafting compelling dialogue, even a weakness back on Star Wars, hadn't improved over the years. For all of Revenge of the Sith's high-stakes drama, it's often undercut with clunky exchanges and melodramatic line-readings, probably no more memorably than when Anakin, at last, becomes Darth and bellows "Nooooo!" in unintended comic fashion after Darth Sidious (Ian Abercrombie) lies to him, saying that he killed Padmé. For as legitimately epic as the final lightsaber battle is — leading to Anakin's transformation into the supervillain we've known for so many years — that "Nooooo!" became just one more painful illustration of how Lucas' instincts weren't as sharp as they once were. It reminded viewers just how flawed this trilogy had been.
Lucas was involved with one last Star Wars film, 2008's animated The Clone Wars, and then four years later, he shocked the industry by announcing he was selling Lucasfilm to Disney. Lucasfilm was his baby — how could he just walk away?
"At that time, I was starting the next trilogy; I talked to the actors and I was starting to gear up," Lucas later said. "I was also about to have a daughter with my wife. It takes 10 years to make a trilogy — Episodes I to III took from 1995 to 2005. In 2012, I was 69. So the question was, 'Am I going to keep doing this for the rest of my life? Do I want to go through this again?' Finally, I decided I'd rather raise my daughter and enjoy life for a while."
In quick fashion, Disney developed a new trilogy, as well as a few spinoff films and an expanding slate of TV series, including The Mandalorian. Lucas had very little to do with any of that. It was strange to think of a Star Wars without him, though it's certainly become the norm.
Has it held up? Like everything Star Wars, Revenge of the Sith is hard to gauge objectively. By the 1,000th time you see a "You were the chosen one!" meme on social media, the film's strengths and weaknesses coalesce into a murky haze of mediocrity. The action sequences are the best of the trilogy, and McGregor really does sell Obi-Wan's anguish at failing Anakin. Plus, c'mon, it's hard not to be stirred by the sight of Darth Vader's black suit — not to mention the nostalgic rush of hearing James Earl Jones' voice as the character with that mechanized breathing going on in the background. Lucas isn't always a great storyteller, but he understands the power of archetypes and myths. Revenge of the Sith taps into that power.
But Christensen was just never a great Anakin, and certainly the career challenges he's faced since suggest that, unlike Portman, he could never fully escape the industry impression that he wasn't a strong actor. But maybe like Darth Vader, redemption waits for Christensen: Late last year, it was announced that Obi-Wan Kenobi, the standalone series that will star McGregor, will also feature Christensen. And the reaction from Star Wars fans was, by and large, surprisingly positive. Were they too mean to him back when the prequels came out? Probably: He faltered in the role, but many good actors seemed lost in those movies, so it's hard to fault him.
With each passing year, Revenge of the Sith — and the prequels as a whole — fade further from view. Partly, that's because the more recent film trilogy, at least The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, helped wipe away those bad memories, with a new generation of directors trying to restore the legacy of a franchise George Lucas birthed and partly diminished with his subsequent installments. But despite its many faults, Revenge of the Sith was his last stand as a filmmaker. There's something deeply sad about the mixed success he had trying to bring that world back to life.
Back in 2005, as he was preparing to release Revenge of the Sith, he imagined what his future would look like. "I've earned the right to fail," he said. "That's basically what I'm going to do. I've got enough of a fund set aside for my old age. From now on, I'm going to make movies like THX that nobody wants to see, that aren't successful, and everybody will say I've lost my touch. I mean, I love doing Star Wars, and it's a fun adventure for me, but I'm ready to explore some of the things I was interested in exploring when I was in my late 20s."
That prediction never came to pass — he never went back to making those small, personal films he'd fantasized about doing in his youth. Star Wars is a gift he gave the world. But one wonders what that other universe might have looked like.
Tim Grierson is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Will Leitch review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site. His new book, This Is How You Make a Movie, is out now.