Ian McDiarmid's Rise as Palpatine Is the True Triumph of the Star Wars Prequels

The Star Wars prequels were disappointing movies, there's no way around that. They don't live up to the standards of the original trilogy, they haven't aged well (especially the CGI), and, in many ways, they fail in their goal of telling the story of the Clone Wars and the fall of Anakin Skywalker. But that doesn't mean there isn't fun to be had with this trilogy, and there's one performance, in particular, that is so excellent it takes Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith from being a "just okay" installment into a hilarious romp. That's right, folks, it's time to talk about Ian McDiarmid's performance as Palpatine.

Before we really dive into this, I want to take a brief detour and talk about my initial thoughts about the prequels and the "Plinkett Reviews," an online retrospective about Star Wars, which are film-length, in-depth reviews of the Star Wars prequels made by the YouTube channel Red Letter Media and its creator, Mike Stoklasa. The reviews first arrived in 2009 and many view them as the first generation of online video film criticism, leading a number of online critics over the years to credit these reviews with inspiring them to start their own voyage into the world of genre film criticism, myself included.

The importance of these reviews is that there was one thing even a cynical grump like Plinkett couldn't help but celebrate in his analysis, noting the one thing he unabashedly loves about Revenge of the SithIan McDiarmid as Sheev Palpatine, better known to the world as Darth Sidious and the eventual Emperor Palpatine. Plinkett's praise stood out so much that it made me rethink my entire outlook towards the film. In the years since revisiting it, I find that McDiarmid's performance is so good, it actually makes Revenge of the Sith a legitimately fun movie to watch.

Let's not get it twisted; there are many things wrong with the prequel trilogy and Sith isn't exempt from that criticism, but Palpatine is such a delight to watch during the movie that he turns what's supposed to be an overly-serious sci-fi epic into a goofy thrill-ride. In the first two prequel films, McDiarmid kept the character's malevolence at a low roar, never letting himself emerge as anything more than a whispering puppet master and a (somewhat) upstanding politician. From the moment he belts out, "Do it!" to Anakin while ordering him to kill Count Dooku, you realize that he is going to pour every ounce of villainy he can onto the screen.

From that point on, every time he's on the screen, his performance is utterly magnetic. He starts off acting magnanimous about his position as Chancellor, swearing that the moment the war is over he'll surrender the vast amount of power he has. He effortlessly seduces Anakin as a well-meaning father figure, constantly telling him how great he is and how accomplished he'll become if he can just get around those pesky Jedi Council bullies that keep trying to put him down. This culminates in the famous opera scene, where McDiarmid drinks in every head turn, every syllable uttered about Darth Plagueis, and how he stands for everything the Jedi oppose, yet manages to appears utterly faultless. He even lets off the tiniest smirk as he describes Plagueis' death, sending an entire generation of Star Wars fans into a frenzy about Sidious being Plagueis' apprentice and, therefore, murderer.

Then we get to the twist (which wasn't a twist to anyone who looked up the casting for Star Wars: Return of the Jedi), when Palpatine outs himself as a Sith Lord, giving one final plea to Anakin and awaits a showdown with the Jedi Council. But instead of playing the calculating tactician we've seen for two and a half movies, McDiarmid suddenly shifts his performance into a cackling, bellowing, inhuman fiend. His delivery of lines like, "No, no, no ... you will die!" "Unlimited ... power!" "I am the Senate," and, "Once more the Sith will rule the galaxy!" are all so wonderfully over-delivered, all of which stand out even more because of the wooden performances almost everyone else is giving. McDiarmid seems to be the only one who knows that he's in a "bad" movie, so watching him revel in his own villainy is the kind of energy this trilogy so desperately lacked.

That's really the heart of the matter — McDiarmid is clearly having fun with this role, just like Palpatine looks to be having legitimate fun toying with Anakin's mind and tossing floating Senate chairs at Yoda. And I believe that sense of fun is what's helped the reappraisal of the prequels in recent years online. They're not the epic war stories they set out to be, they're meme factories. Jokes about having the "high ground," hearing the tragedy of Darth Plagueis, the Wise, not liking sand, and saying "Hello there ... General Kenobi!" utterly dominate Star Wars social media and subreddits. The sense of fun fans felt in the original trilogy was missing from the prequels, so they found a way to fill that gap by endlessly poking fun at what's on the screen. And at the center of that was Palpatine, with McDiarmid being the only actor who is self-aware enough to know that the only way to get through these films is by hamming it up immensely.

The Star Wars prequels might not be good movies, but that doesn't necessarily make them terrible, nor are they so bad that they don't deserve a second look to appreciate a legitimately great performance amidst the bad CGI and screenwriting. If you haven't watched Sith in a while, go back and give it another look while putting your focus on what ol' Palps is up to. And, given what we know about Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, it's probably a good time for a refresher before we see what quips he has for Rey and the gang.

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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker lands in theaters on December 20th.


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