Fifteen years ago today, my mom and dad took me to see Revenge of the Sith. I was not quite 15 years old. We had seen all the Star Wars movies together in the theater, and so of course we had to see what was then expected to be the last one.
I loved the movie, as I had loved all Star Wars films. It was dark and unsettling, and it had a message to it. Maybe it was a message only I could see, but it was a message all the same. More about that later.
On the way home afterward, we went to our local Borders bookstore. We always went to Borders (and Toys “R” Us) after the movies. This is something I suspect kids a few years from now will completely cease to understand—bookstores, toy stores and cinemas are all being shuttered, replaced by streaming, online orders, e-books and so on. These things are safer and more convenient, but make for less memorable experiences. If not for brick-and-mortar stores, I would not to this day recall walking across the parking lot with my dad, talking about whether or not it was ridiculous for Obi-Wan to come swaggering up to General Grievous like he does. I would have no memory of the way the clouds outside the store gathered on the horizon, portending a late spring storm in a way that I thought was just perfect given the mood of the film I’d just watched.
One thing I can’t remember is if we got the novelization at Borders or if my parents had already bought it for me and saved it as a gift. But either way, I recall reading it later that day and being enthralled by Matthew Stover’s prose as he retold the story of the film, adding depth and nuance to the characters, explaining their thought processes in certain key scenes.
Another memory that sticks with me from that day is a feeling of gratitude. I can distinctly remember thinking how happy I was to get to see a Star Wars film with mom and dad one more time. I was semi-aware that I was getting older, growing up, and for an instant, at least, was conscious enough to appreciate that moments like this wouldn’t last forever, and that I’d better be thankful for that one. I remember this vividly, because it’s such an important insight, flashed as if spoken by some deity of Greek myth (who were said to do such things) into the mind of an otherwise typically arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenaged boy.
For I was arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled, make no mistake about it. I was only dimly conscious of it at the time, but Revenge of the Sith is a story designed to speak to arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenage boys. I had but recently been introduced to the joys of literary analysis thanks to Gayden Wren’s A Most Ingenious Paradox, and was far from good at it, but even I was aware, for the first time, that this story was meant to do more than just entertain. It was telling me something else.
George Lucas has talked many times about the deeper meaning of the Star Wars prequels. He has said repeatedly that they were meant to explore how a democratic society can give way to authoritarianism. While drawing parallels to many different times and places throughout history, Lucas once claimed that his fictional galaxy most closely resembles the Roman Republic–and its eventual transformation into the Roman Empire.
In my opinion, this attempt at social and world-historical commentary is what sets the prequel trilogy apart from Lucas’ original trilogy, not to mention the Disney sequels. Nothing in the original films was explicitly designed as a commentary on forms of government and phases of a civilization’s existence. Sure, there are rebels and there are imperials, but it was only meant as a fun space adventure in the style of Flash Gordon.
The non-Lucas sequels have turned it into more of a space soap opera—a family saga, like the epics of old mythology. The family saga thread runs through the prequels as well, but only to the extent that Lucas meant for Anakin Skywalker’s personal story to mimic the life-cycle of the Republic itself.
Of course, careful readers will note that above I have said that this sets the prequels apart, and of course, setting apart is exactly what a prequel should not do—its aim is to tie together, to make a coherent whole of a story.
Revenge of the Sith fails catastrophically in this regard. A callback to the original trilogy’s first spaceship interior and a shot of silhouetted figures watching the twin suns set do not begin to make up for all the ways in which Revenge of the Sith not only does not tie-in with the originals, but actively contradicts them. For example: how do Yoda and Obi-Wan even know the Lars family exists? Why do they give the children to them, and not to, oh, say—Padmé’s family? You know, their actual grandparents?
In the novelization, Stover tries mightily to make it all add up, but even he cannot square this circle—or perhaps, circle this square, since the whole idea is supposed to be that we have come back to the beginning.
The prequels are best understood not as an earlier part of the story told in Star Wars: A New Hope, but as a separate series of spinoff films meant to tell an entirely different story. This story is about how a constitutional republic is gradually replaced by a tyrannical government that imposes its will through naked military force.
To put all this in context: at the time Revenge of the Sith premiered, the United States was divided over the Iraq war and the broader “War on Terror.” Some feared that President Bush, and especially Vice-President Cheney, were expanding the powers of the executive branch far beyond what was normal or healthy. The scene where Anakin tells Obi-Wan, “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy,” was seen as being a reference to Bush’s “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
I was just becoming politically aware at the time, and finding out that my favorite movie series also was relevant to politics was pretty exciting, and I was delighted to study the social commentary aspect of the films.
But because Lucas was writing a drama, and not simply a dry treatise on forms of government, he needed a protagonist for his exploration of how republics collapse, and that is where Anakin Skywalker comes in.
Nobody much likes Anakin Skywalker as he is portrayed in the prequels, and for good reason. He demythologizes Darth Vader, who was an ideal villain in the original films. Hayden Christensen’s performance is uneven at best; although any actor probably would have struggled with some of the lines he’s given.
I’ll admit, reading the book so soon after seeing the film may have colored my impression of the character. Anakin’s behavior, which on the screen is over-the-top and ludicrously unstable, seems in the novel to be the product of an emotionally-drained, profoundly exhausted man struggling to think clearly. If you understand him to be suffering from extreme sleep-deprivation, as the novel explains, some of Anakin’s actions make more sense.
But even then, there are inherent flaws with his entire story arc that Stover couldn’t completely correct. Although I dislike the term, Anakin is what’s typically called a “Mary Sue,” in that he has everything handed to him on the basis of nothing more than some vague talk about prophecies and midi-chlorians.
Viewed this way, the Star Wars prequels are the story of a spoiled child who gets privileges he doesn’t deserve. In Revenge of the Sith, he’s granted a seat on the Jedi Council and doesn’t even seem grateful for it. (This is somewhat explained in the novel.) He’s a brat who keeps demanding more and more to feed his insatiable ego, throwing tantrums whenever his older, wiser teachers give any hint of a rebuke. As someone with a far better ear for the English language than George Lucas once put it:
And this is what I mean when I say that Revenge of the Sith is a story about and for spoiled teenage boys. The moment I’ll never forget from Revenge of the Sith—the emotional climax of the film—is the scene on the Mustafar landing pad when, soaking in the afterglow of a rage-fueled bloodbath, Anakin brags to Padmé about his newfound power. When she reacts in predictable horror, he flies into a rage and chokes her—ultimately leading to her death.
I could write a whole post about Padmé’s death and how it makes no sense. As if a strong woman would “lose the will to live”—after having just given birth, no less! Everything about Padmé up to that point tells us that she would, if anything, be motivated to fight harder for the republic she loves. And that’s not even touching the ludicrous plot hole it creates with Return of the Jedi when Leia is somehow able to remember her mother.
But remember, Revenge of the Sith is targeted at a very specific audience: arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenaged boys, and arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenaged boys aren’t empathetic enough to realize how contrived this is. No, what I remember thinking at that moment was:
Dude was married to Natalie Portman and he threw it all away because he was angry and wanted power.
Revenge of the Sith is a cautionary tale about where acting like an arrogant, narcissistic spoiled teenage boy gets you: you lose your lover, you lose your best friend, and you get mentally destroyed. (The fact that Anakin is also mutilated and burned alive is in line with the longstanding dramatic tradition of physical injury symbolizing psychic or spiritual wounds.)
As Stover writes, describing in the second person how it feels to be Anakin Skywalker:
“You killed her because, finally, when you could have saved her, when you could have gone away with her, when you could have been thinking about her, you were only thinking about yourself… it is in this blazing moment that you finally understand the trap of the dark side, the final cruelty of the Sith—because now your self is all you will ever have.”
It’s a morality tale, and characters in morality tales are rarely notable for their depth or nuance. This is a key thing to understand about Revenge of the Sith, because it makes a lot of its weirdly clunky dramatic choices more comprehensible. The fact that the entire universe seemingly revolves around Anakin Skywalker—a classic flaw in any story guilty of Mary Sue-ism—is because it’s fundamentally a story for narcissists. Stover himself makes mention of this, in a passage told from Mace Windu’s perspective:
“Skywalker no longer had a shatterpoint. He was a shatterpoint. The shatterpoint. Everything depended on him. Everything.”
The tragic irony is that Anakin thinks he’s doing the right thing; he thinks he’s helping the people he loves, but only because he’s too solipsistic to think beyond what he himself would want. He sells his soul to the devil to buy eternal life for Padmé without ever bothering to think about whether that’s what Padmé would want. In typical Faustian fashion, he is left with nothing at all.
This underscores the other obvious way the prequel trilogy is unlike the other Star Wars film cycles: it ends on a downer. It is a tragedy; a story of decline and defeat. The film tries to de-emphasize this slightly in the final scenes, but the novel’s ending is much more melancholy: “The long night has begun,” the final paragraph tells us, and Stover’s last image is not Owen and Beru watching the sunset, but Obi-Wan riding off to begin his exile.
By filling in Lucas’ visually stunning but sometimes incoherent sketch with rich details of nuance, emotion, and backstory, Stover’s novelization makes the story of Revenge of the Sith vastly more layered and complex. It’s a story of manipulation, betrayal, and civilizational collapse. Above all, it’s a story of how a young man’s passion and fear cause him to destroy himself.
Perhaps I feel this way because I saw it at just the right time in my life, but more than any other Star Wars film, it’s about coming to terms with the end of something: for the characters in the story, it’s the end of the republic, the end of the Jedi, the end of a romance. For audiences at the time, as well as George Lucas himself, it was about the end of cinematic Star Wars. And for me, it was about the end of my childhood. I grew up with the Star Wars movies—the special edition was released in theaters when I was seven, and I had followed it to the cusp of adulthood.
Of course, as we all know now, it wasn’t really the end of Star Wars. About a year and a half later, I found myself playing what I still consider to be the single greatest Star Wars story ever written: the video game Knights of the Old Republic II, which to this day remains one of my favorite works of fiction. And, for good or for ill, there has been a whole new crop of Star Wars movies, and no doubt there will continue to be.
But for all its flaws, Revenge of the Sith is the one I always come back to. It’s the darkest one; the one that isn’t about heroes toppling the evil empire, but about how the evil empire can be brought into being when we grow complacent, when we become arrogant or hard-headed, when we give in to our worst tendencies and emotions.
And it’s also about celebrating those who fight on even amid such dire circumstances, battling valiantly against overwhelming odds. As you can tell, there are many lines I cherish in the novel, but the one that I think of most often is this, from early in the book, as Stover introduces the massive space battle that kicks off the story:
“[T]he adults are wrong, and their younglings are right. Though this is the end of the age of heroes, it has saved its best for last.”
I love that line. It’s so beautiful and so poignant. It’s about how there can be something noble, even amidst decay. It’s about finding something to hold on to, even when everything is collapsing around you. And for me, that’s what Revenge of the Sith is–at once a final, nostalgic glimpse at the joys of being a child who could be mindlessly entertained by a movie about space wizards, and a recognition that at some point, I had to move beyond such things; that sometimes such hero fantasies lead to more harm than good.
How much of that is the film, how much is the book, and how much is my own recollection of my 15 year-old self’s mindset, I can never say for sure. All three are forever intertwined in my memory, and that’s why Revenge of the Sith will always be special to me.