Prequel Trilogy,  Revenge of the Sith

‘The unmasking of Sidious is the scariest scene’ in the saga, says writer


From presents From a Certain Point of View: a series of point-counterpoints on some of the biggest — and most fun — Star Wars issues. In celebration of Halloween, this installment features two writers discussing which scene in the saga brings the most chills and thrills. […]

The unmasking of Sidious is the scariest scene, says Alex.

Of all the monsters in the Star Wars universe — the rancor, the Sarlacc, the rathtars — none can be scarier than the kindly old man who turns out to be a Sith Lord. Discerning fans of a certain age always knew the reveal was coming, but the anticipation of Palpatine finally showing his true colors was half the fun of the prequel trilogy.

The Blu-ray labels this scene “Mace vs. Sidious,” which is accurate enough, but there’s also a total transformation happening before our eyes. Sidious has spent the previous two films lurking in the shadows, a puppeteer of war and chaos, his face hidden beneath a hood. In Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine lets loose with everything he’s always been underneath: a wicked sorcerer obsessed with seizing power and, if he has his way, finding the secret to immortality.

Mace Windu’s no fool; he enters the Supreme Chancellor’s private office with three of his best fellow Jedi, knowing he’ll have no choice but to take Palpatine by force. Except that even Windu couldn’t have foreseen the full extent of the Sith Lord’s power. One of the film’s most thrilling moments comes when Palpatine’s gold-plated lightsaber hilt snaps into place and its crimson blade flares to life. “I never dreamt in a million years that I would be given a lightsaber, and that I would have to fight,” Ian McDiarmid admits on the one of the Blu-ray’s commentary tracks.

Suddenly, the gentle man who befriended young Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace lets out an inhuman howl and pirouettes through the air, tearing his way through each of the Jedi accompanying Windu as though they were untrained younglings. They’ve underestimated the dark side.

The performances in this scene are completely unrestrained. These are two actors who know that this is the “monster movie” of the Star Wars saga, where everybody’s cards are on the table; no one’s getting out of Episode III alive without some serious scars. Part of the horror element in this scene also comes with the knowledge that Sidious is unmatched as a swordsman — even the Jedi Council’s best are no match for him. And, lightsaber or not, he’s a lethal force of nature, as Windu soon discovers.

The scene’s violent physicality, and Sidious’ witchy facial expressions, are on a level rarely seen in Star Wars, at least outside of Return of the Jedi. Makeup and special effects are used liberally throughout, yet it’s so convincing that it really challenges our understanding of Palpatine and the Sith Lord he’s been hiding inside all along. It’s as terrifying as it is exciting: Who is this man? What’s he truly capable of, in light of what we’re seeing on screen and what he’s told us about his mysterious mentor, Plagueis? To what extent is he holding back just to manipulate Anakin?

As Mace deflects Sidious’ lightning back at him, and his face melts away, the Sith Lord’s voice deepens into something monstrous, and his eyes turn to a beastly, luminous yellow. In this instant, the Sith win — and Vader is born. So much of the movie’s dramatic weight hinges on Anakin’s decision to side with Palpatine instead of the Jedi, and Mace’s death solidifies his fall.

In revisiting J. W. Rinzler’s The Making of Revenge of the Sith, it surprised me to recall how much difficulty Lucas and his crew had while shooting the Mace-Sidious duel. “We’re going to be here all day,” Lucas said at one point, apparently referring to the decision-making process they had to go through to determine what would be CGI (much of Sidious’ performance uses a digital double as well as a stunt double) and what could be close-up shots of McDiarmid’s face.

I can’t help but wonder if the hideousness of the fight — a stark contrast to the neat, civilized choreography seen in much of Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones — is a direct result of the challenges inherent in the shooting process. Fortunately, the brutality of what’s happening in the script fits perfectly with the very chaotic, almost uncomfortable rhythm of the scene — the sudden tight close-up of Sidious, for instance, followed shortly after by a wide shot of whirling sabers and shattering glass.

It’s utterly terrifying, and McDiarmid’s never been more magnificent than when Sidious makes his ultimate promise to Anakin and all the galaxy: “Power! Unnnnnliiimited power!” […]

Alex Kane is a video-game journalist and critic based in west-central Illinois. His work has appeared in GlixelKill Screen, the website of Rolling Stone, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @alexjkane.


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