In my review of Attack of the Clones, I said how Revenge of the Sith has become "accepted (albeit grudgingly)" into the inner circle of the Star Wars canon. It's widely held to be the best of the prequels, and even its opponents will concede that it is in some way narratively necessary, in order to tie up the origin of Darth Vader. His character development (if that term is appropriate for the prequels) is the only reason besides the money that we are saddled with this trilogy.
For once, I am in agreement, both as a fan of the original Star Wars trilogy and an opponent of the other prequels. Revenge of the Sith is better than Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, having a marginally stronger story and being altogether more watchable. But whether you compare it to the originals or its sci-fi contemporaries, it is still a pretty bad film. Its few virtues are magnified only by the lowering of expectations after the first two instalments, and a feeling of relief that it is finally all over (or, chronologically, that we have finally reached the good part).
The most noticeable change in Revenge of the Sith is the overriding feeling we get from watching it. The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones both produced feelings of depression and seething rage, while this film is a little easier to sit through. The question which we have to keep asking ourselves is this: it is genuinely better, or is it that we have grown to expect so little from these films that none of George Lucas' ineptitude shocks us anymore? Have we become like hard-core Highlander fans, who turn up wearily for each new film on the basis that, no matter how bad it is, it can't be worse than Highlander 2: The Quickening?
To be fair to Lucas (God knows I've been trying), there are certain things about Revenge of the Sith which are clear improvements. There is a lot less of the horribly written romance that sank Attack of the Clones, with Padmé's screen time being used relatively wisely. With the exception of the closing montage, there is no deliberate attempt to justify the film on the basis of its continuity with the originals. And best of all, Jar Jar Binks is barely in it.
The big narrative advantage with Revenge of the Sith is that, unlike the other prequels, we have some idea of where it is going. While Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones blindsided us with their creative choices, and wore us down with their water-treading story-telling, we can sit through the third film knowing that, at some point, Anakin will go to the dark side. While this does mean the transition comes as no surprise, we always knew this was what the prequels were building up to, and therefore we can forgive a little predictability.
But even here Lucas finds a way to screw things up. In order for Anakin's transition to be dramatically compelling, we have to believe that he is a genuinely well-meaning, good person who is, to quote his master, "seduced by the dark side of the Force". But all throughout the prequels, Anakin has been built up as being deeply frustrated with his master and the Jedi as a whole. He's constantly sulking at not getting his way, so that his transition becomes so inevitable that there isn't any drama to it at all. No matter how impressively he is mutilated, we're just bored by him.
Not only is Anakin's transformation far too willing, but it's built up as being far more complex than it actually is. Lucas is trying to position his story as being like a Shakespearean tragedy or one of the darker episodes of I, Claudius, in which characters descend into darkness through deep-seated jealousy, paranoia, pride or spite. But he has neither the emotional intelligence to make Anakin's fear for Padmé believable, nor the political insight to make the realpolitik make sense. As with so much in the prequels, what we are told is deep, insightful and engaging as actually boring, infantile and devoid of any creativity.
Both of these issues with the central plot point reflect the fact that Revenge of the Sith, like its predecessors, doesn't know who its core audience is. The film made headlines for being the first Star Wars film to be given a 12 certificate, with Lucas promising that this would be 'the dark one'. The storyline and spectacle is too childish and directionless for anyone old enough to see the film in a cinema, but Anakin's incineration is too graphic for anyone younger than 8. Lucas has once again betrayed the spirit of the originals, which were given U or PG certificates because they were suitable and appealing for people of all ages.
I've resisted diving into too much plot analysis in my previous Star Wars reviews, since there are so many holes in each of the prequels that my reviews would quickly turn into lists. But since Revenge of the Sith is concerned with getting us to Darth Vader, and thereby tying things up with Episode IV, it's only fair to address how utterly nonsensical the story is. The story of Revenge of the Sith makes next to no sense whether you're a fan or a casual viewer - though it's hard to see how any casual viewer with half a brain would have made it this far.
Put simply, Revenge of the Sith makes all the people we are supposed to like look like complete idiots. Palpatine's plot has been obvious to us from the get-go, and yet it's only after Anakin kills the younglings that Obi-Wan realises that something is amiss. The latter's trip to hunt down General Grievous (another pointless character) is total filler, designed only to give Anakin and Palpatine some quality time. And the whole Order 66 malarkey just screams of plot contrivance, further reflecting Lucas' lack of understanding about how dictatorships gradually erode and replace democracies.
On top of all that, the film screws up the continuity with the original trilogy. In The Empire Strikes Back, Vader is told by the Emperor about "the son of Skywalker" - and he just accepts it, as if he always knew it to be true. But in this film, he is convinced by the Emperor that Padmé was killed and therefore he cannot have a son. If we assume that Sith is canon (we have no reason not to), it doesn't make sense that Vader would react so calmly to this revelation, let alone wait until the end of the following film to confront the Emperor about it.
One part of the film which Star Wars fans have defended is the lightsaber battles, particularly the confrontation between Obi-Wan and Anakin on Mustafar. But all the battle sequences, lightsaber-based or otherwise, look and feel like badly-designed video games. The opening battle with the infiltration of Grievous' ship feels like the opening of a third-person shooter, and the lightsaber fights are directed by someone who understands neither the laws of physics nor the drama of spontaneity. In any case these battles are so badly edited that we don't particularly care who comes out on top.
The performances in Revenge of the Sith are terrible because they convey the exact opposite of what they intended. Hayden Christiansen tries to be moody and threatening, but his half-hearted scream of "I hate you!" sound less like a man on fire than a boy who was told that he couldn't have an ice-cream. Ewan McGregor tries to convey gravitas and regret, but he just looks out of his depth and his recklessness is totally out of character. Natalie Portman tries to show Padmé's heartbreak at losing Anakin, and yet she delivers the line "you're breaking my heart" like a cheerleader stood up at the prom. The only good performance comes from Ian McDiarmid, who plays Palpatine as an old-fashioned, Hammer horror bad guy. He seems to be the only one having fun, perhaps because he's the only one who understands how silly it all is.
Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith is by far the best of the prequels, but is still a very poorly made mess of a film. Even if we disregard the on-going feelings of betrayal and issues regarding continuity, it is still badly written, badly directed and poorly acted outside of McDiarmid hamming it up. The few saving graces are not enough either to redeem the film in its own right or to provide any justification for what has gone before. It's a depressing and empty conclusion to a depressing and empty trilogy, and the most we can feel after seeing it is relief that it's finally over.