The best scene of the Star Wars prequels has no dialogue whatsoever. Just as it was in the original trilogy, the final line in Episode III comes from Anthony Daniels’ C-3PO, who gives a feeble “Oh no”, as Bail Organa orders a subordinate to have his memory wiped, ostensibly so that the prequels synch up with his more clueless character in Episodes IV to VI. But the final three minutes of Revenge of the Sith play out in silence, continuing an elegant dovetail into the original trilogy and, both visually and narratively, it’s marvellous.
Revenge of the Sith is the best film of the prequel trilogy. Even if you hate it, it’s still the best by default. But there’s plenty to applaud in the movie, which ramps up Anakin Skywalker’s seduction by the Dark Side of the Force considerably. The Clone Wars have provided ample spin-off potential outside of the main series, but while the conflict was just beginning at the end of Episode II, it’s wrapped up in the first act, as Anakin (Hayden Christensen) executes Count Dooku (Christopher Lee).
His valour gets him promoted to the Jedi Council by Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), although Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) et al. still don’t accept him as a peer. Palpatine fuels Anakin’s growing anger and his fear that his wife Padme (Natalie Portman) will meet an untimely end. A reckoning with his master Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) is also coming, as Anakin finally brings balance to the Force by throwing his might behind the Sith.
There’s a filmmaking adage that says a movie is never finished: you just let it go. Famously, Lucas has never really followed that saying. He has continued to tinker with his Star Wars films ever since they were in cinemas. Through 1997’s Special Editions and endless DVD and Blu-ray re-issues, we’ve seen deleted scenes restored, CG characters added and endless non-debate over who really shot first, Han or Greedo*.
Even the prequels got the revisionist treatment when the saga came to Blu-ray in 2012, with the Yoda puppet from The Phantom Menace replaced by his CG equivalent. The other small changes are generally cosmetic, in comparison to the vast difference between the Special and theatrical versions of the original trilogy. Episode III needs those touches the least, because they arguably got it right first time around.
But that’s not the kind of editing we’re talking about here, because Star Wars has always had a flow that comes straight out of the editing room, with its use of wipes and transitions becoming a crucial part of the series’ unique visual language. In Revenge of the Sith, this gets turned up to 11, using slatted wipes and other discombobulating transitions throughout the film to represent Anakin’s inner turmoil and confusion.
Episode III had a lot of work to do and so in terms of pacing and structure, this is the most judiciously edited of all the films to date, concentrating on Anakin as a character as he descends into evil. Christensen is still far from the finest actor that the saga has ever seen, but he makes more of what he’s given to work with here than he did in Episode II. Besides which, the film around him is leaner and more focused than anything the series had seen since the 1980s. Well, except for that “NOOOOOOOO” moment.
Lucas’ scripts get the most flak of any aspect of the series, but in closing his saga, the editing process began on the page. Working from his original outline from 1973, he re-wrote large parts of the planned plot in order to zero in on Anakin as a character as he falls to the dark side. Plot threads that went out of the window include a number of space battles in the closing days of the Clone Wars, the erasure of the planet Kamino (as set up in Episode II) and more pressingly, a revelation that Palpatine created Anakin using midichlorians and thus is essentially his father.
The script editing pays off in a big way with regard to the latter of these – the implication of it is there in the opera scene, where Palpatine tells Anakin about the dark side, without giving in to the urge to ape The Empire Strikes Back’s iconic “I am your father” moment. McDiarmid is at the peak of his powers as he finally becomes the Emperor and while he’s not one for subtlety in any of these films, that scene is a powerful moment in a film full of powerful moments for him.
This continued after the film had been shot: the deleted scenes on the home entertainment release have a couple of great moments that help to connect the two trilogies, but were cut for time because they didn’t contribute to Anakin’s arc. These include a conference scene that basically marks the birth of the Rebel Alliance and a scene of Yoda arriving in Dagobah, where Luke finds him in Empire.
The credited editors here are Ben Burtt, who also edited the first two prequels and is best known for his sound design work on the saga as far back as 1977, and Roger Barton, who has long worked on Michael Bay’s films. Although Lucas directed all of the prequels himself, he’s known for directing many of his films from the editing room, doing uncredited work on the first three Indiana Jones films in that respect. Unsurprisingly, he has some nifty insights into what makes good editing.
“In my films, the dialogue is not where the movie is,” the director once said. “My films are basically in the graphics. The emotional impact comes from the music – and from juxtaposing one image with the next. Cinema is about moving images. But it’s moving from one image to the next that creates the emotional impact.”
Episode III manages this most effectively when it is most crucial, in the elegant ending sequence, which goes on a sad and tragic tour of the galaxy in a shared moment of calm before the storm. Instead of using flashier transitions, Lucas moves between scenes with good old-fashioned iris wipes.
This is a technique in which the frame literally zeros in on whatever occupies the centre of the image. In this case, we’re drawn to the lucky charm that Anakin gave Padme when they were both younger and happier, or the sight of Darth Vader silently surveying the construction of the Death Star, before ending on the bittersweet note of Luke and Leia arriving on Tatooine and Alderaan respectively.
Everything settles in those last three minutes. Padme is laid to rest along with the Old Republic that she loved. Vader is at his Emperor’s side, his heart hardened against the galaxy. Leia becomes a fostered princess and Luke arrives under a binary sunset. And when McGregor puts that hood up, he’s perfected his Alec Guinness tribute act to the point that he stops being Obi Wan and becomes Ben. Upon seeing it in the cinema, you wouldn’t have been blamed for immediately going home and watching Episode IV, because the last sequence is such a perfect bridge to the rest of the story.
It’s as much to do with the composition of shots and John Williams’ soaring score as the editing work, but this film, and particularly this sequence, is where the prequel trilogy finally got the editing right. It’s almost too perfect: closing circles to close the circle of the saga itself.
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