“I like visual imagery, but I started out in pure film which is really a kinetic experience. So that’s where my focus is. That’s why I intend more of a kinship with silent films than more modern film.” –George Lucas, Empire Magazine, 1999
The prequel trilogy elicits strong feelings from admirers and detractors alike, but most everyone can agree the films are the singular vision of a director who wanted to show us how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. George Lucas once stated that writing dialogue was not his strong suit. But dialogue is the least impressive tool in his arsenal of storytelling. He is a visual auteur. He fills his frames with light and shadow and detail that confound the senses. In the tradition of old Hollywood serials, Lucas takes advantage of the visual potential of film to reinforce themes and introduce symbolism into each scene. He would rather show us the story than have it revealed through dialogue.
Revenge of the Sith is a film in which Lucas makes striking choices in how characters appear in relation to one another and their setting. He uses composition and cinematography to create a sense of foreboding that heralds the tragedy to come. If we freeze the film at key moments during specific wide, establishing, and long shots, we can see what Lucas is communicating about the characters.
Here are 10 examples of Lucas’ unique brand of visual storytelling.
Love In The Shadows
When Anakin arrives on Coruscant shortly after rescuing Chancellor Palpatine from a Separatist invasion, he is given a hero’s welcome by his fellow Jedi and a host of political movers and shakers. But Senator Padme Amidala, who is secretly married to Anakin, cannot afford to be indiscreet.
Lucas places her beside a massive column, almost out of frame. Anakin, not yet seeing her, is about to exit far left. When the young couple chose to marry, they did so knowing the risks. The consequence of that choice is illustrated in the way the Senate’s cavernous interior literally stands between them. Jedi are forbidden to have romantic attachments. Politicians are forbidden to corrupt the values of the Jedi. By breaking these mores, Anakin and Padme have sentenced themselves to a life of stolen moments. The lonely grey light seeping through the columns casts them as little more than ghosts in a reunion that, under different circumstances, would be openly celebrated.
Politics is often called a blood sport. The interiors of the Senate building, like in the previous image, are awash in deep shades of crimson. The elegant art deco lines of the Chancellor’s office create an intimidating space in which he constructs his plan to dismantle the Republic. Bathed in even more red hues, the office interior not only suggest the cutthroat game of politics, it represents the lair of a Sith Lord hiding in plain sight.
Palpatine’s patient, methodical corruption of Anakin has taken years to culminate. This frame shows their relationship as it exists in the moment: malicious intent lurking beneath a veneer of cordial mentorship. Whether Anakin knows it or not, he is being groomed to take his place at Palpatine’s side. Here, Lucas foreshadows their future relationship by presenting them as black silhouettes.
Fear of Loss
Plagued by visions, Anakin spends sleepless nights on Padme’s lavish veranda. Lucas centers the shot but keeps Anakin left of center, facing the infinite skyline of Coruscant. Although Anakin’s strengths and deeds make him larger than life among the Jedi and Coruscant’s political elite, in solitude he appears small and lost.
For all his might as a Jedi, Anakin is haunted by the realization that he could not save his mother from death years earlier. And he fears that his visions of Padme’s death in childbirth will soon come to pass. Fear of loss pushes Anakin further into isolation. With this establishing shot, George Lucas suggests that the path to the dark side is not one of dramatic lurches towards evil, but of lonely incremental choices.
The Council’s Request
In this frame George Lucas recalls the earlier scene between Palpatine and Anakin in which both figures are backlit against imposing architecture. But the predatory nature of the office scene is replaced here by a friendship clouded by politics.
In a brilliant and calculated move, Chancellor Palpatine appoints Anakin to the Council of Jedi Masters. The Council allows Anakin to serve but refuses to grant him the title of master in defiance of Palpatine’s interference. This creates a rift between Anakin and the Order.
His best friend and master Obi-Wan Kenobi is tasked by the Council to deliver an assignment to Anakin: spy on the Chancellor. This breach of trust happens as the two friends share a moment in front of a towering window inside the Jedi Temple. Lucas paints the sky with storm clouds. Sickly yellow light from the late afternoon sun pierces the cloud cover just enough to bathe Anakin and Obi-Wan in its dying glow. The end of the Jedi is near. It’s also the end of something more: the friendship of two men who will find the bonds of their brotherhood tested in ways they cannot possibly imagine.
One of the most powerful moments in the saga occurs as Anakin faces a painful choice: allow Palpatine to be arrested by the Jedi, or intervene on his behalf.
Anakin’s quandary plays out with a series of shots through the windows of buildings on opposite sides of the city. As he gazes at Padme’s apartment on the distant skyline, he cannot bear the thought of losing her, and Palpatine could hold the key to saving her life. Padme, feeling Anakin’s pull through the Force, stands at the window of her apartment, her gaze fixed on the Jedi Temple. It’s as if she senses Anakin’s suffering, but is unable to understand the magnitude of the choice he is willing to make. It is the deep breath before the fall.
As homage to the era of silent film, the heartbreaking scene occurs without a single word of dialogue, accompanied only by John William’s haunting score.
Do What Must Be Done
When Anakin finally becomes a Sith apprentice, Palpatine christens him Darth Vader and orders him to enter the Jedi temple and slaughter everyone there. Convinced that the Jedi pose a threat to the stability of the galaxy, and committed to making himself stronger in the dark side, Vader complies without question.
Lucas chooses an overhead shot to show Vader’s entrance into the Temple. A single shaft of light illuminates the death squad’s approach. This god-like perspective encourages the audience to simultaneously pass judgment on the downfall of Anakin, the annihilation of the Jedi, and the collapse of the Republic. The distance allows us to appreciate the scope of the horrors to come.
Not even the Jedi Younglings were spared from the great purge. In Darth Vader’s most shocking betrayal, he enters the Council Chamber where young Jedi are hiding behind chairs. Although we never see them die at Vader’s hand, the frame tells us all we need (and perhaps want) to know about how thoroughly Vader carried out Palpatine’s order to leave no Jedi alive.
In The Phantom Menace , Anakin first appears in the Temple standing before the Jedi Council. In Revenge of the Sith, his final appearance in the Temple is to ensure that no child ever stands in that chamber again.
As he does frequently throughout the film, Lucas presents Vader as a dark and threatening presence under his black cloak. He has ceased to be Anakin Skywalker; his features are lost and meaningless. He has forsaken the light and embraced the shadows.
Having survived the purge, Obi-Wan and Yoda enter the Jedi Temple in the wake of Order 66. They survey the atrocities within, shown at great distance among the scattered remnants of the dead, dwarfed by the oppressive emptiness of the space surrounding them.
There is a beauty to the golden light that fills the frame, which perhaps underscores the magnitude of what has been lost.
More Machine Than Man
Mortally injured from his duel with Obi-Wan, Vader is rescued from the lava banks of Mustafar and brought to Coruscant to undergo surgical transformation. The scene depicts the assemblage of Vader’s cybernetic encasement intercut with Padme giving birth to the twins; life and death inextricably linked across space and time.
In this overhead shot of Vader’s mangled body, lights suggesting the six distinctive spokes of the Imperial Galactic symbol encircle the remains of Anakin Skywalker. Consumed by the dark side, consumed by his new Empire, Darth Vader will be its servant for decades to come.
A New Hope
Lucas’ final shot in Revenge of the Sith echoes a moment seen in the original trilogy. Infant Luke has been delivered into hiding by Obi-Wan at his new home on Tatooine. His caretakers turn to face the setting suns, and as the music swells, we feel hope for the future.
When the same scene played out in Star Wars in 1977, it depicted a naive farm boy longing for a life of adventure and wondering if the horizon would offer him the chance to experience it. By echoing that moment in Revenge of the Sith, Lucas re-contextualizes the original. No longer do we see a naive farm boy longing for a life of adventure. We remember the hope set against that sunset so many years prior in Episode III. Now we see a young man chosen by destiny to save the galaxy.
Two vistas, shot from the same angle, populated by solitary figures on a horizon, manage to communicate two very different themes. This is possible through the magic of cinema. As a student of the visual, George Lucas understood this, and incorporated message and meaning into each and every frame of his films; layering his mythology right before our eyes at 24 frames per second.