After Obi-Wan got that high ground we never expected to see another new Star Wars movie again, and so waiting in line to see Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith at midnight on May 18 (into 19), 2005, is one of the most bittersweet moments in the memories of the Star Wars fans who were there. I wasn't a child when Revenge of the Sith came out. I was 23, and on the verge of leaving my home planet of Tatooine (Arizona) for the Coruscant of New York City. One month after I saw Revenge of the Sith at midnight, I left my family behind and changed my life forever.
I don't think I'm alone on this. The specifics are surely different for other fans, but I think Revenge of the Sith was a point of departure for everyone. I don't mean that we lost faith in the franchise — it just felt like the franchise was really, finally, ending.
For six years, a new kind of Star Wars fandom had sprung up around the prequels, and regardless of the critics (and older fans) telling us to hate the new films, we kept showing up in our lawn chairs at midnight for each installment. For better or worse, Revenge of the Sith was the definitive ending of that era. By the time the next round of Star Wars films would be released, we'd all be a decade older, and the idea of camping to see the movie would become wildly impractical.
For countless Star Wars fans, the theatrical release of Revenge of the Sith was a bittersweet moment, probably because it was also a moment in which we were encouraged to move on. While I maintain that the release of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 1999 was largely celebrated by teenagers and twentysomethings of the time, I think Revenge of the Sith felt very different.
It's not a bad memory at all, but a very strange one. I don't remember thinking the film was a disappointment. I don't remember feeling let down, or even particularly bothered by Vader walking like Frankenstein and belting out that famous "NOOOO!" The only "no" I remember uttering was a quiet one. I just remember not wanting it to be over, but being told, overtly, by Star Wars itself, that it was time to grow up.
Every news article and interview with anyone involved with Revenge of the Sith in 2005 has eerily similar language to what we saw in 2019 with The Rise of Skywalker. This film, Episode III, was really going to conclude the Star Wars saga by finally giving us the missing piece: The moment Anakin became Darth Vader and the Empire rose to power. More than the other two prequels, Revenge of the Sith felt like a crossover event. Chewbacca was in the movie. The trailers showed Palpatine looking the way we remembered him in Return of the Jedi. In this way, Revenge of the Sith felt like a confluence of all of Star Wars — not the pinnacle of the saga mind you, but a specific crossroads where we were supposed to look at the saga from all angles.
The last new Star Wars movie was going to be released, but it wasn't going to be a big, triumphant ending. It was, essentially, like snapping in the final piece of a LEGO set.
Star Wars Episodes I-VI were, in a way, like a murder-mystery novel; the events of Episode III are the shocking crime that everything else revolves around. But, due to the way the trilogies were released, Episode III came last. It's like having the chapter where the murder happens cut out of the middle of the book and pasted onto the end. Star Wars was an arty experiment that also felt like it was made for adults who liked reading the footnotes in mythology books, or people who somehow preferred The Silmarillion to The Lord of the Rings.
Revenge of the Sith is also really the only Star Wars movie that doesn't stand up to George Lucas' long-held assertion that the saga is for kids. Knowing Anakin became Darth Vader off screen is one thing. Showing him catch fire, limbless, and spewing hate isn't just disturbing because it's Star Wars. It's just disturbing.
But those aren't the things I remember about seeing Revenge of the Sith for the first time. The depressing stuff was a given. It's not like we wanted the Jedi to all get killed or for Padmé Amidala to die in childbirth, but because of years of indoctrination, we knew these things had to happen. In Quentin Tarantino's newest movie, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, the real-life murder of Sharon Tate is prevented at the last minute by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. The death of Padmé in Revenge of the Sith is whatever the opposite of that is. You didn't want these characters to die, but when you bought your ticket, you knew if these characters didn't die, you'd be pissed. In some warped way, you could argue that Padmé's death or the murder of the Jedi were "fan service." We didn't necessarily need to see these things happen to understand what had happened. But, still, this isn't the kind of fan service you cheered for.
That said, fans did cheer. In my screening, specifically, people cheered over the appearance of a familiar hallway. When Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Bail Organa are briefly walking the white, spacey corridors of the starship Tantive IV, the crowd in my theater exploded into whoops and applause. A bewildered friend of mine sitting next to me was confused. "Why is everyone happy?" I explained to him that the hallway of the Tantive IV was an iconic hallway from the original Star Wars movie. "You're telling me people are cheering for a hallway?" I nodded in the affirmative.
And that's what it was really like to see Revenge of the Sith for the first time in 2005. You were basically cheering for anything you saw that seemed familiar, and sort of nodding your head solemnly at all the bad sh**. It was the closest thing to going to a particularly uncomfortable sermon where you were told that even if you did everything right, you were probably going to hell anyway. My faith in Star Wars had not been shaken. If anything, Revenge of the Sith had reaffirmed it.
To this day, I think the film is deeply strange, beautifully dark, and woefully underappreciated. It ended the prequel trilogy boldly and profoundly and wasn't afraid to be a giant bummer. Lucas could have easily decided to end the movie by showing the seeds of the Rebellion, people building X-wings, or Admiral Ackbar loading a gun or whatever. But he didn't. The movie's message to aging fans like me was pretty simple: This ain't about toys, and this ain't about money. This is a tragic story and it always has been. Deal with it.
Revenge of the Sith was still in theaters when I moved to New York in the summer of 2005. I never saw it in a theater in New York City, which I now deeply regret. I did, however, buy a bootleg DVD of Revenge of the Sith from the famous — and now mostly extinct — black market movie salespeople who sold you movies in the middle of parks or on the platforms of subway trains. When I asked the guy if he had "the new Star Wars," he kind of rolled his eyes and produced a copy of it. He charged me $10 for it and I gave him the cash without hesitation.
When I watched it later in my apartment in Queens, the quality was surprisingly good. The only weird thing about the bootleg was that it had a set of numbers running along the bottom of it, counting down to the time when the movie was over. Whenever I think about Revenge of the Sith now, I still think about those numbers counting down. A clock running out. The last moments before childhood is really, truly over.