It caused no small amount of consternation in the worlds of film and fandom when, in her 2012 book Glittering Images, art critic and humanities professor Camille Paglia declared Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith the greatest work of art in a generation. "The long finale of Revenge of the Sith has more inherent artistic value, emotional power, and global impact than anything by [modern artists of the era]," she later told Vice.
In The Chronicle of Higher Education, she cited Revenge of the Sith as proof that George Lucas was the greatest artist of our time: "He is a man of machines yet a lover of nature, his wily persona of genial blandness masking one of the most powerful and tenacious minds in contemporary culture."
Today, May 19, 2020, marks the 15th anniversary of Revenge of the Sith and it is no less powerful a film as it was upon its release. To explore its continuing (and growing!) popularity, SYFY WIRE spoke with fans and creators alike to understand what makes Revenge of the Sith arguably the best, most enduring story in a galaxy far, far away.
Rob Coleman, the film's animation director, told SYFY WIRE that this was the best of their outings during the prequels. "By the time we were working on Revenge of the Sith, we knew the characters, the technology and, most importantly, what George [Lucas] was after," he explains. "We learned a lot over the two previous films, so we were able to apply that knowledge into creating the best visual effects and animation possible at that time. I am very proud of what we created back then."
And it shows. The film doesn't look dated in the same way other FX pictures of the era look. In fact, none of the prequels do. There is no Star Wars film that opens with more of a bang than this one, breathlessly inserting you into the middle of the Battle of Coruscant — and it doesn't let go from there, racing you through action, love, politics, and betrayal. From that stunning opening to Vader falling to his knees upon learning of Padmé's demise, the film has a foot to the gas pedal the entire time and is nothing short of a triumph.
Even the trailer for Revenge of the Sith, which holds nothing back, is one of the most impactful in the history of the series. Looking back on the trailer for the film now, it evokes visceral, emotional reminders of how tragic the film really is. The trailer didn't even have to hold back plot points — Anakin's fall, Order 66, Palpatine's confrontation, Vader's appearance — for the film to remain impactful; the excitement was found in the execution, not the results.
As it turns 15, some older generations of fans don't understand the attraction to Revenge of the Sith as the greatest Star Wars film ever made, but the more time passes, the more it supplants The Empire Strikes Back — long held as the greatest Star Wars movie for its shocking ending, quality acting and drama, and dynamic love story — in many minds.
My own son, Anakin, is 17 years old, and says, "[Revenge of the Sith] is just the best one. The fighting, the dialogue, the sadness. It's all just the best."
Why has Revenge of the Sith resonated so strongly?
Eric Geller, a cybersecurity reporter at Politico and a huge Star Wars fan, thinks part of it might be its political message. "Revenge of the Sith concludes a trilogy that functions as an extended parable about the dangers of demagoguery and the consequences of citizens disengaging from democracy," he tells SYFY WIRE. "George Lucas used Palpatine to warn us about what was happening in the real world, and I think he did it very effectively. I think that message resonated particularly strongly with millennials, who have endured some of the most brutal consequences of the corruption, misconduct, and demagoguery that dominated the 2000s."
Part of the critical reevaluation of Revenge of the Sith during this time comes from comparisons to today's political landscape. "You never want a film to hit you over the head with its message, and this one isn't preachy at all. It's still very much a Star Wars movie, but it weaves in this brutal and poignant lesson about what happens to a democracy if we stop caring about it," Geller says. "One of my favorite lines in all of Star Wars is 'So this is how liberty dies... with thunderous applause.' Sadly, that phenomenon is very relevant today."
He continues: "It's not surprising that Revenge of the Sith would find its most passionate fanbase in the people who have seen the most opportunities vanish over the past two decades. Those people — my fellow millennials — have the most painfully clear understanding of the dynamics at play and are the most receptive to storytelling that evokes those dynamics."
There's an entire generation who found that this Star Wars trilogy, which culminated in Revenge of the Sith, was made just for them. That's the case for E.K. Johnston, the author behind the Star Wars novels Ahsoka, Queen's Shadow, and the upcoming Queen's Peril. "For a generation of kids — myself included! — this was our Star Wars. We didn't inherit it," she explains. "It was made for us: our world, our worries, our politics. I think that's what makes the prequels so long-lived. The people who love them love them very personally, and we wanted a Star Wars that was ours to love."
Others think the staying power of the film lies in its overwhelming tragedy. James Arnold Taylor, the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, just took Obi-Wan through events of the film on the final season of that show. "I think it's the tragedy of it all," he says. "It's the pinnacle of the Skywalker story, and it was something we all wondered about the first time we saw A New Hope, plus — and I know I'm biased — Obi-Wan is at his finest in it."
To Taylor's point, one of the most tragic sequences in all of Star Wars has to be Revenge of the Sith's purge of the Jedi. Anakin's fall to the Dark side and Palpatine's grand plan coming to fruition holds an undeniable emotional weight.
If the Star Wars: The Clone Wars finale is any indication, this scene still brings tears to the eyes of audiences around the world when it's mirrored in other media, from television to comics. In fact, a simple search on YouTube yields hundreds of videos of reactions to this scene, most leaving audiences a sobbing mess.
Author and SYFY WIRE contributor Preeti Chhibber agrees with this assessment; that the tragedy is the film's best quality. "Oh God, it's the heartbreak," she says. "I love it and it kills me, but Anakin and Obi-Wan's final battle — Ewan McGregor's voice cracking during 'You were my brother, Anakin!' gets me every time. I can distinctly remember sitting in the theater during Revenge of the Sith and ugly crying into my hands. I wonder if it's because it gives voice to desperation and tragedy in a uniquely Star Wars kind of way. There's a catharsis in seeing Anakin's fall, especially knowing that he will have his redemption, but now we know what it all cost him."
Eric Vespe, a film critic and contributor to SYFY WIRE, explains that the dark tragedy of films like Revenge of the Sith, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Last Jedi add to the catharsis and fun of the other films, giving them extra weight, even if people don't notice. "By challenging the characters and showing they don't often succeed, it means that the next time they're faced with a challenge there's a tiny voice in the back of your head that goes, 'Well, they'll probably win this time... but I don't know. They did freeze Han in carbonite. They did have Yoda get his ass kicked by Palpatine. Poe did decimate almost the entire Resistance force...' It's the uncertainty that adds extra excitement for when the good guys do win," Vespe explains.
Perhaps the reason Paglia posits that Revenge of the Sith is a perfect work of art is because this film, more than any other film in the Star Wars universe, represents the unflinching vision of its creator. Unrestrained from having to compromise with technology in order to paint the pictures in his mind on screen, George Lucas was at his best. With the final chapter of the Skywalker Saga (to that point), it was the perfect punctuation mark to our most dear, modern mythology.
Whatever the reason one believes Revenge of the Sith is great — whether it's the most important work of art of its generation or a tragedy that helps connect an audience with its empathy — it will live forever as one of the greatest Star Wars films of all time.