Revenge of the Sith is finally getting its due. The fifteenth anniversary has seen great swathes of people announce their appreciation of it in all its idiosyncrasies, it being a varied, operatic tale that delivers on a dark descent to evil for Anakin Skywalker. Perhaps one of the most underappreciated aspects, though, is the depth to which it digs to illuminate he foundations of his fall. This is a parable not simply about the rise of a dictator or the tragedy of Anakin’s lost promise, but of a society set to self destruct by its adherence to tradition – a premise that holds up today.
A compromised Jedi Order is very much already in place when the film begins, even though we first witness the heroism of Anakin and Obi-Wan. The predecessor, Attack of the Clones, pitches the Jedi as unable to sense the path through galactic events, evidently the result of a collectively skewed moral compass that becomes evident decide to use clones to fight for them. Such a moral compromise follows a utilitarian approach, the greatest good for the greatest number, but this weakening of solid principles means the writing’s on the wall at the sequel’s opening.
Their moral weakness and mistreatment doesn’t just extend to others but to their own, Anakin deemed a pawn for them to use. He’s not treated as a war hero but distrusted due to his mentor-mentee relationship with Chancellor Palpatine, and instead of having earned respect he’s tasked with acting as a spy. It’s one of their most heinous acts: they know Anakin’s emotional vulnerability, already having deemed too old for training when he was a child, and are willing are to put his wellbeing at risk for their ends. This lack of trust and respect leaves Anakin, inevitably, more and more vulnerable to the persuasion of the evil Palpatine’s faux-affection, and this moral failing seems to cement the downfall of the Jedi.
His unsuitability to be a Jedi is reiterated throughout the prequel trilogy, and this film perfectly puts tradition to its ultimate test. Previous films have him as fearful, angry, obsessive, and unable to handle the complex emotions bubbling up within him – an end result that the Jedi suspected. Here, Anakin encounters a premonition of his ultimate fear: the loss of his wife, Padmé. Yoda, aware of a secret distress, advises him to “let go of all he fears to lose”, failing to break with the aphorisms of tradition and react with genuine, complex, unreleased humanity. The traditions of the Jedi keep Anakin distant and his reality, soon to clash horrifically with theirs, at a deadly remove.
Toxic masculinity has clearly consumed Anakin by this point, his pride and his entitlement to power clear examples. But his toxic attitudes, from whatever seed they originated, are watered by the environment he’s in, one that until even the very last doesn’t have the humanity to give him the emotional guidance which he needs. Without any guidance he becomes the outwardly destructive force we see in Revenge of the Sith, the Jedi Order that failed him being destroyed as a tragic result. A different situation might have been brought about by Jedi Order less determined to protect its traditions above its members, in the same way that society destroys itself by its clamouring to the past.
The real world would likely see Anakin on the alt-right, a comparison not made glibly. The Jedi Order he’s trapped within is a centrist organisation, if not to the right, driven by adherence to historic ways and unable to see outside of its male-led, rule-oriented status quo. A segment of society like the alt-right offers a sense community for people, largely privileged young white men, who feel frustrated by their lack of power in a stifling society. Any organisation or society’s stagnation is the perfect breeding ground for extreme opinions that seem vital and freeing in contrast.
This believable depiction of a pseudo-society’s collapse harmonises elegantly with the bold themes of the original trilogy. Anakin is destroyed by his adoption into this patriarchal order but his son, Luke, reforms it. Obi-Wan and Yoda, two of the last remaining Jedi, order him to ignore his injured friends in The Empire Strikes Back and then to kill Vader in Return of the Jedi, but he rejects their suggestions to instead employ humanity in each circumstances. It’s his choices to show humanity that allow peace at the end of that trilogy, and the lack of humanity which sparks destruction at the end of its prequel.
But it’s the way these ideas are suggested to us that makes them particularly effective. Hayden Christensen is sorely underrecognised for performances in both latter parts of his trilogy that evoke the awkwardness and childlike obstinacy of being a deeply troubled teenager, and this helps us to relate the story to our reality. But the theatricality of the presentation at large allows these themes to not become too heavy-handed, instead becoming a subtler part of a epic tragedy with a scale that allows it a permanent place in culture. This combination allows its intelligent to still be recognised years later in a somewhat different context.
This isn’t to say it’s a perfect piece of philosophising. Tonally it does verge into camp, and the simplistic dialogue hinders the narrative from presenting its parallels more recognisable. It’s a work that has stood the test of time so far, though, and complements and completes the rest of its saga. George Lucas’ aim for his Star Wars films was to speak to young people of spirituality, to awaken a wider awareness of the world; and perhaps, through an identifiably conflicted teenage lead and immensely rewatchable entertainment, he’s created one to make them consider the most fundamental and persistent flaws.