So, Episode III. I get the sense that this is the prequel film that people like the most. It does have a great many excellent moments – particularly after the half-way point, where Anakin becomes Darth Vader. I like almost everything in the second half of this film.
As with the review for the previous film, in this review I’m going to have to go through the events of the film in mostly-chronological order. (I would prefer to split the review by the different aspects of filmmaking, but that’s not really possible with this film.) A lot happens in this film, and a lot of the scenes we see build very rapidly on previous scenes.
The opening sequence is excellent. Such a complex, low-altitude space battle is not something we’ve seen before in this series. And George Lucas putting it over Coruscant leads to many interesting questions – if anything of sufficient size falls to the ground, it will cause A LOT of destruction – there’s nothing but city down there – anything that falls WILL kill a lot of people. Since Palpatine is ultimately orchestrating this entire war, and could stop it at any moment, it shows how little regard he has for the people of the soon-to-be empire.
The buzz droids are also not something we’ve seen before. They are an interesting new weapon, and an example of good world-building. In a universe with droids as clever and common as R2-D2, buzz droids would definitely exist.
We even get some good character moments in the opening sequence. Anakin’s determination to save Obi-wan from the buzz droids makes the ending to this film all the more tragic. But then despite Anakin saving Obi-wan, Obi-wan still berates Anakin – as he did throughout the last film – that Grievous’ ship’s shields are still up.
Ian McDiarmid and Christopher Lee are brilliant as always. If this film were released today, I’m sure the way McDiarmid plays Palpatine would be described as over-the-top, cartoonish – or even slightly flamboyant. There is a trend at the moment for gritty villains. But McDiarmid playing the character in this way is what makes it enjoyable – the character isn’t supposed to be some pretentious mIrRoR tO tHe AuDiEnCe – he’s supposed to be the embodiment of pure evil – someone who is devious and cunning – and McDiarmid plays that perfectly.
Like with the last two films, there are some odd lines of dialogue in this film. Some very noticeable examples are in the conversation between Anakin and Obi-wan after they have gotten the chancellor back, and just before Obi-wan goes back to the temple. This entire conversation is a bit off – the whole thing sounds like two actors acting rather than two people who are actually friends talking to each other. Once again, I think this is a writing problem – the lines just haven’t been written in a very natural way.
We then get many scenes that are great setup for Anakin’s fall. Anakin starts getting visions of Padmé’s death and he goes to Yoda for advice. (As a side note, I really like that Anakin can go to Grandmaster Yoda – this again shows how Yoda is not just the leader of a martial order, but a spiritual one too – he has to be involved as much in the moral training of the Jedi as the day-to-day running of a martial school.) The advice that Yoda gives Anakin is ‘Train yourself to let go.’.
This is the worst possible advice to give Anakin at this moment – he is never going to follow that advice. This shows how even if the Jedi’s teachings are correct, they did not adjust how they taught them for Anakin – who of course, was older than most people are when they join the Jedi Order – they knew he had already formed attachments – they needed to adjust his training based on that. And here, Yoda doesn’t know the exact details of Anakin’s situation, of course, but as soon as a Jedi as powerful as Anakin – and the Chosen One – came to him talking about fearing someone’s death, Yoda should have inquired more. This should have been a red flag for Yoda.
Anakin keeps getting bad instruction and bad advice from the Jedi Order – Obi-wan constantly berates him, and now when he goes to Yoda he doesn’t get the right advice. They are not good mentors for Anakin.
At the same time, Anakin sees Palpatine as an excellent mentor – his true mentor. There are several scenes in the previous film and this one that show that Palpatine has befriended Anakin over the time he’s been on Coruscant. (In truth, these scenes have told us this rather than shown it – through off-hand lines of dialogue. Seeing Palpatine befriend Anakin should probably have been a more major component of these films, given how important it is – it could certainly have replaced some of the overly-long action sequences – but I’m not sure it could ever have been given enough time given that this is just three films – this is perhaps another reason why the story of the prequels might be better told through a long-form television series than a film series, but at the time the prequels were made, such series’ were less common.)
Palpatine often compliments Anakin. In the previous film, Palpatine tells Anakin ‘You are the most gifted Jedi I have ever met.’. Later in this film, he says that Anakin is the obvious choice to be the one to hunt down General Grievous, and at around this point in the film he tells Anakin that he is appointing him to be his personal representative on the Jedi Council. Anakin immediately assumes that this means he will be a Jedi Master, and from his reaction it is apparent that he has always wanted this (and probably believes that he already should be one). For the entire time that Anakin has been training to be a Jedi, he has been told that he is the Chosen One – he is expected to be a great Jedi, and he has always wanted to meet that expectation. After years of feeling like Obi-wan has been holding him back, it is now Palpatine who allows him to progress. Anakin keeps receiving good sentiments from Palpatine, and now Palpatine is giving him the opportunity to do something he’s always wanted to do – Anakin sees Palpatine as a good mentor. This is all excellent setup for Anakin’s fall.
The Jedi give Anakin a seat on the Council, but they do not grant him the rank of master. Anakin is angered by this. He sees it as unfair, and as the Council deliberately holding him back. This adds to Anakin seeing the Jedi Council as being in opposition to him (something which started when Anakin first met the Jedi Council in Episode I – they did not want him to be trained as a Jedi – his first impression of the Jedi Council was as something that would get in the way of what he wants to be and do).
Then the Council asks Anakin to report on what the chancellor is up to. Anakin strongly dislikes this – it goes against the Jedi Code – it goes against what he has been taught that it means to be a good Jedi. Anakin first being denied the rank of master and then being asked to spy on Palpatine are more excellent setup for Anakin’s fall. First he is prevented from being the great Jedi he wants and is expected to be, and then he is asked to do something that a great Jedi would never do. It puts Anakin in direct conflict with the Council, and he realises that they are not the moral paragons that he has been taught that they are (which leads into the later line of ‘From my point of view the Jedi are evil.’). The Jedi Council asking him off-record to do this makes it worse – they are being secretive and deceptive – qualities that are associated with the Sith. The line from Obi-wan at the end of the scene ‘The Council is asking you.’ is the perfect line to end on – this makes it clear to Anakin that it is the Jedi Council – and thus the institution of the Jedi – that is the problem.
This scene also shows Anakin’s naïveté when it comes to politics. Palpatine putting Anakin on the Jedi Council was him trying to get Anakin to spy on the Council for him, but Anakin didn’t see it that way, because it wasn’t put that way (and because Anakin was blinded by ambition). Anakin should have disliked the idea of reporting on what the Council was doing to Palpatine as much as the idea of reporting on what Palpatine was doing to the Council, but he didn’t, because he couldn’t see what Palpatine was up to.
All of this is a master stroke of writing. We see how the Jedi are not good mentors to Anakin, while Anakin increasingly sees Palpatine as his true mentor. We see Anakin increasingly see the Council as being opposed to him, preventing him from becoming the great Jedi that he was told he would be and that he wants to be. We see the Jedi Council ask Anakin to do something against the Jedi Code – the moral code that they teach as the way to act – and spy on the very person who Anakin sees as his true mentor. This is all brilliant setup for Anakin’s fall.
After this we get the famous scene in the opera. This scene is so memorable that most Star Wars fans can quote it word for word. The best thing about this scene, of course, is Ian McDiarmid’s performance – again, maybe it’s a little bit over-the-top, but I think that’s good – that’s part of what makes it memorable. When I rewatched this film, one line that struck me as great was ‘If they haven’t included you in their plot, they soon will.’ – what a deliciously manipulative line for Palpatine to say to Anakin.
Shortly after that we get the final scene between Obi-wan and Anakin before Anakin turns to the Dark Side. Now, there’s nothing about the scene that suggests that this will be the last time they speak before Anakin turns to the dark side – there’s nothing foreboding about it – you only realise that it is the last scene when you rewatch the film, but that makes it all the more tragic. This final scene shows a very ordinary conversation. This means that from Obi-wan’s point of view, everything seemed fine, and it’s only when he returns from Utapau that he starts to see what’s happened.
What’s also interesting about this scene is that we finally see Obi-wan praise Anakin – ‘You have become a far greater Jedi than I could ever hope to be.’ – after berating him almost constantly for years. Had Obi-wan not berated Anakin so much, Anakin might not have started seeing Palpatine as his true mentor, but this praise is too late.
The world design of Utapau is excellent – we’ve not seen a world like this before in Star Wars. The prequels are excellent in how many new worlds and species are introduced. Grievous has an interesting character design – once a completely biological lifeform, he is now mostly machine – good foreshadowing of what Anakin will become. The fight scene between Obi-wan and Grievous is perhaps overly long (or perhaps other parts of the film are not long enough), but at least it incorporates elements that we’ve not seen before.
The scene where Anakin realises that Palpatine is a Sith Lord is good, but it needed to be a bigger moment. This is a pivotal moment in the story of the prequels – this moment and the moment where Anakin becomes Palpatine’s apprentice are possibly the two biggest moments – but it doesn’t entirely seem like the big revelation that it should be for Anakin. For that I think there needed to be more focus on Anakin’s reactions to every line Palpatine said, and more tension in the scene overall. The success of this scene depends not on the audience realising that Palpatine is a Sith Lord – we already know that – but on us seeing Anakin realise that, and understanding how he reacts to it – which we don’t get enough. Anakin has been told he is the Chosen One who will destroy the Sith for years – we should have seen a reaction from him of deep suspicion and indecision.
And then we get to the most important scene of the prequels – the scene where the Jedi try to arrest Palpatine, and where Anakin turns to the Dark Side and becomes Palpatine’s new apprentice.
As has been commented many times before, the fighting between Palpatine and the Jedi could have been a lot better. It veers between fairly slow, simple fight choreography between the actual actors, and a CGI Ian McDiarmid jumping around unnecessarily. This should have been an epic, memorable fight, and it’s not (well, it’s memorable for the wrong reasons). I get the sense from behind-the-scenes videos that they just didn’t spend enough time on this aspect of the scene.
Mace Windu overpowers Palpatine, of course, and then Anakin comes in. Anakin has not seen the fight, nor heard anything that Palpatine said to the Jedi, and now he must choose who to believe about what has happened. The setup to this moment is fantastic – who does Anakin believe? Does he believe Master Windu, who has never trusted him – who was the person who said that he wouldn’t be trained as a Jedi, and then that he would not be given the rank of master – who is part of the Jedi Council, which Anakin has long found frustrating, and which asked him to do something against the Jedi Code, and who is now about to do something against the Jedi Code? Or does he believe the person he has long seen as his true mentor, and who claims can teach him how to save Padmé? It’s glaringly obvious which one he would choose in the end.
I like almost everything in the film from the point where Anakin turns to the Dark Side onwards. The music as Order 66 is executed is fantastic – sorrowful, mournful. We even get some great world-building as that happens – we see several completely new planets, with very different terrains and life-forms, just for a few seconds each as part of the montage. It’s more world-building than we get in all of the Disney films. The sight of the Jedi Temple on fire at night is also delightfully tragic.
The fight between Anakin and Obi-wan on Mustafar is one of the highlights of the trilogy, I think. Mustafar is another environment that we haven’t seen so far in the series, and an excellent choice of backdrop for a fight between father and son, or between brothers, that will decide the fate of the galaxy. The music – Battle of the Heroes – is outstanding – both epic and tragic. I know very little about sword-fighting, so I couldn’t say exactly how good or bad the fight choreography is, but throughout the entire sequence, it looks like both characters are giving it all they’ve got.
I think possibly the best line of the prequel trilogy is Obi-wan saying ‘I have failed you, Anakin. I have failed you.’ – because it is absolutely true, and it’s only now that it’s too late that Obi-wan has realised it.
It is a beautiful tragedy when Obi-wan has to watch Anakin be burned by the lava. He has to watch the destruction of his pupil and brother, who by this point hates him not just because he is on the opposing side of a war, but because he has been the source of his frustration for years, and is now just letting him burn. I think Christensen performs brilliantly in this scene (and so does McGregor, when I think about it).
There are some bad lines in this part of the film. Some of Padmé’s lines when she’s talking to Anakin after she arrives on Mustafar are a bit odd. I think that, as ever, this is down to how the dialogue is written – it’s far too terse – and a lack of reaction shots and close-ups. Also, after the Mustafar sequence, when Padmé is dying, and the robot says ‘She’s dying, and we don’t know why … She’s lost the will to live.’ – this is a bit daft.
At the same time as the sequence on Mustafar, we see the fight between Yoda and Palpatine. Once again, Lucas finds a way of doing something different with the fight – this one taking place in the main senate hall. The destruction of the senate hall as the head of the Sith and the head of the Jedi fight is a simple symbolism, but a satisfying one.
After all of that, there are various short scenes that wind down the film, and the trilogy. Qui-gon being the first Jedi to become a force ghost is a nice touch – you get the sense that if there’s anyone who would be the first, it would be him. Padmé’s funeral, while short, and sort of cliché, is beautifully tragic – and a great scene to have at the end of this trilogy – the tragedy of Padmé Amidala and the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker are essentially one and the same.
This film has an extraordinary number of excellent aspects. It has some bad lines of dialogue, and there are many missing reaction shots. Some of the scenes are too long, others too short, others not impactful enough. The film has many flaws, but I don’t think they at all outweigh the extraordinary number of good things about the film. This is an excellent, but imperfect, film.
This is the same as what I said about the previous two films. There are many, many great things about this trilogy, and the idea that it was a complete disaster, as some people seem to think, is completely flawed. To see this trilogy as a disaster, you would have to ignore about 90% of it, and over-focus on about four or five lines of dialogue throughout the three films. You would have to ignore all of the great world-building, the great actors, the great performances, the great sword fights, the great costume design, the great music, a story structure which is unlike most of what we get from modern Hollywood (one of the things people who like The Last Jedi claim is great about the film was that it didn’t follow the same tired structure that a lot of space fantasy films do – well the prequels also don’t follow that same structure), and you would have to over-focus on ‘I don’t like sand.’ – a line so forgettable and ignorable that I’m amazed anyone at all complains about it.
If nothing else, writing these reviews has shown me just how many things I like about these films, and I will now be able to come back to this review if I want to think over these things again.