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In fear of sounding unoriginal, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is clearly the superior Star Wars prequel. The film has much grander stakes than Episodes I and II, and it's pretty clear that this story - one of manipulation, paranoia and loss - is the one George Lucas was most excited to tell all along. I'd go as far as to say that, after watching Episode III, you'd be hard-pressed to view the first two prequels as anything other than elaborate set-up. Lucas' screen-writing style remains an issue in Revenge of the Sith - the dialogue is as stiff and bland as ever - but the overarching narrative of Anakin's fall from grace is engaging enough to make up for it; the same can't be said for the rest of the trilogy.
Despite the script's weakness, a couple of lines do stand out; one moment in the space-senate feels almost Shakespearean with Padme mournfully proclaiming "So this is how Democracy dies: with thunderous applause." It's a shame that Natalie Portman, one of the greatest actresses of her generation, is offered so little to work with throughout these films, but her work in this scene almost makes the entire space-senate sub-plot worth watching. We should acknowledge the elephant in the room, though: Padme Amidala is an awful character. Her impressive career in space-politics is rarely contemplated in Lucas' scripts, and her abysmal characterization renders her as a non-entity. Instead of demonstrating why the senator holds so much sway in the space-senate, Lucas defines Padme entirely through her relationship with other men. She's even reduced to a pawn in the final sequence of this film (with Anakin believing Obi-Wan has manipulated her to stand against him). It's a real shame, but I know that Star Wars has a menagerie of off-shoots and I trust her character has been more substantially fleshed out in other mediums.
Anakin's character isn't much improved by Episode III's script either, but his turn to the dark side was genuinely harrowing and I was impressed with the film's ability to create compassion for the flailing Jedi. Christensen was under-equipped to convey Anakin's nuanced strife in Episode II, but Episode III requires a much less complicated performance of the actor. Anakin's fiery meltdown (no pun intended) is, in fact, performed quite nicely; visceral anger is far easier to enact, after all, than complex internal warfare. The film's final moment, which see Anakin's brutalized body finally equip the Vader suit, offers a glimpse at what the prequels should have been - disturbing, frightening and dark. It's just a real shame that we had to sit through The Phantom Menace's fart-jokes and 'humour' to actually arrive here.
One aspect of Episode III which deserves nothing but praise is its special effects; Star Wars has come a long way from the blocky graphics of The Phantom Menace. The film opens on the 'Battle of Coruscant', the film's best-executed action sequence and certainly its most gorgeous. The transitions between cock-pit close-ups and widescreen space-shots are faultless, and it was a thrill to finally experience some Star Wars magic after two underwhelming films. The Wookie home-world 'Kashyyyk' also stuns (despite having the worst name for a planet since Uranus) and its humid jungles provide an excellent backdrop for Palpatine's execution of 'Order 66'. The film also employs some great practical effects too; Anakin's Sith-eyes are simple but effective, and Palpatine's melted face isn't nearly as distracting as it could have been.
Actually, let's carry on talking about Palpatine for a second. You know how I've spent the last two Star Wars reviews moaning about how Palpatine should have been a main character in the prequels? Turns out I was right. Here, the senator takes centre stage and is a deliciously evil threat. His fight with Yoda in the space-senate was brilliant, if not a little on-the-nose in it's depiction of his destruction of democracy, and his manipulation of Anakin proved electrifying entertainment (ha - no?). The scene in which he appoints himself as Emperor was genuinely fun to watch and, along with Padme's "applause" line, the sequence offered nice closure to the trilogy's shambolic senate through-line. I also greatly enjoyed the 'Order 66' twist, which I actually couldn't see coming. While it seems a little ridiculous that we, as movie-goers, had zero emotional attachment to the Jedi victims of the trilogy's biggest twist, the sequence was otherwise well executed (ey?) and felt epic, as Star Wars should be.
I guess that's the the prequel trilogy's biggest sin - we spend far too much time with characters that aren't adequately served by the overarching narrative, and at the same time we are asked to care about characters who's names we don't even know. This should have been a truly dark tale focusing primarily on Anakin's inner turmoil. We should have been completely invested in his romantic relationship with Padme, and we should have been shocked and devastated at his manipulation by Palpatine. Instead, the trilogy chooses to offer audiences with Anakin's entire, unedited life-story. This decision ultimately locks the audience within Anakin's own, limited perspective - one which the audience themselves have already outgrown on the account that we know Palpatine is evil.
There is a tension, then, that develops between the audience and the storyteller; we aren't allowed full access to Palpatine until Anakin himself becomes privy to his true nature - a full five hours into the trilogy. We're supposed to pretend that we too have no idea who Lord Sidious could be. With Palpatine serving as the crux of Anakin's downfall, this decision severely limits the potential of the prequels. While Star Wars Episodes I-III had all the ingredients to be a sweeping, galactic Greek tragedy, audiences are offered a tonally awkward trilogy that - much like Anakin - fails to understand its true potential until too late.
I'm ragging on it, but in honesty I've actually enjoyed my exposure to Star Wars so far. I'm not out of the woods yet, though; next up on my list is Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) - a film that's been lambasted as one of the worst Star Wars project in recent memory. Let's see what all of the fuss is about, shall we?
TL:DR; Revenge of the Sith is bittersweet - everything it gets right is a reminder of where this trilogy has gone so wrong.
Written by James Green