(Of course, spoilers abound.)
“A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil, helped the Emperor hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights. He betrayed and murdered your father. Vader was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force.”
In 1977, and for three years after that, this was the only origin of Darth Vader. In 1980 we found out that Obi-Wan was lying during this speech, and that Darth Vader was, in fact, Luke’s father. This was not only a surprising revelation to both Luke and the fans, but it marked a turning point in the story. The motions the Rebellion go through in Return of the Jedi are not given half the importance as Luke’s quest to confront and redeem his father, and the freedom of the entire galaxy is simply background noise for the reuniting of one particular family. George Lucas had decided the this story was never about Luke and the Rebellion, it was always about the rise, fall, and redemption of Anakin Skywalker. And, as with everything Lucas decides, it was “always” about this.
It’s been argued that the decision to make Darth Vader be Luke’s father was surprising and exciting, but ultimately disappointing. It raised the stakes at the expense of the story, in my opinion. Others have pointed this out as well, that this decision transforms Luke from a local boy done good to someone who inherited a destiny he’s simply playing out. In addition, as I pointed out, it sidelines the whole Rebellion plot, despite the fact that that’s the story that truly makes a difference. (As I’ve pointed out before, the redemption of Anakin Skywalker doesn’t make a single jot of difference to the rest of the Galaxy. In fact, apart from his role in the plot to save Han Solo, the only thing Luke does for the rebels after blowing up the Death Star is bring R2-D2 to Bespin. That’s it. Luke’s desire to be a Jedi and save his father results in him putting the needs of the rest of the galaxy aside to fulfill his own personal quest.)
So, in 1999, when Episode One premiered, it had a difficult task to accomplish. It had to not only tell the story of Anakin Skywalker, it had to justify the telling of the story. It’s arguable as to how well it did either of these things, and in my opinion you have to address both these issues.
There’s an interesting movie or two buried somewhere in Episodes Two and Three. Episode One, I think, is a complete wash, with only one or two necessary ideas in it. The story of Anakin is one that could be interesting, were it told compellingly enough. Sadly, I don’t think this was done. As I said in the post I linked earlier, it was absolutely vital to portray Anakin sympathetically, and it was never done. Anakin never comes off as anything except angry, proud, and whiny. The deep bond between him and Obi-Wan is something we’re certainly told about, and expected to realize, but is never shown. Anakin’s relationship with Padme, hamstrung by Lucas’ seeming inability to write romance, is another thing that is supposed to be deeply motivating to him, yet, is all talk. And finally, the loss of his mother, which sets him up for his fall, is treated somewhat better, but still not presented as enough motivation to turn him into the villain he becomes. In the end, Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader because Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, because the story declared that thus it should be. It’s hard to say how much Palpatine twists the boy’s mind, because we never really see his mind un-twisted. It’s nice to see that Anakin’s decision to cross over to the Dark Side took slightly longer than his decision to cross back, but this also brings up another point. Why is his attachment to Padme his downfall, yet his attachment to Luke is his salvation? Why is it selfish to betray one master for his wife, but not to betray another master for his son?
Certainly I’ll be accused of reading too much into a fluffy adventure series. But for me, since the events are already known, something else has to be there. If the story of Darth Vader must extend beyond Obi-Wan Kenobi’s speech above, then these things I’m discussing are important. We know the events that must be played out, and to justify three movies to have them happen, there need to be reasons for these events other than “well, that’s what happened.” The Prequels address only some of the questions one has about Vader’s origins, but not all of them, and arguably few-to-none of them to any kind of satisfying depth.
But apart from that, how was the movie?
So, knowing that I feel that this movie failed to tell the story whose telling was never justified, did I like the movie? I had a good time, and yes, there were a lot of exciting scenes. The “Order 66” scenes were great. The confrontation between Anakin and Obi-Wan in the lava pit was quite exciting, and its resolution was very unexpected. General Grievous was an interesting bad guy, though I’ve no idea who he was or where he came out of. It’s possible I didn’t buy the video game, novel, comic book, cartoon, cereal, stickers, or whatever that explained what his deal was. I liked the Wookiee battle scenes, though I really could have done without the return of the “Tarzan yell”. Yoda, of course, was great, especially as he’s experiencing the betrayal. R2-D2 kicking battle droid butt (and his confirmation as the true hero of the saga: the fact that his memory is not wiped proves that he knows everything that’s going on and is constantly working to make sure everyone is doing their job to help him save the Galaxy.) What didn’t I like? The unwelcome return of midi-chlorians as an “explanation” for the unnecessary virgin birth of Anakin. The tacked-on Qui-Gon bit at the end. I’m assuming Liam Neeson couldn’t be talked into a brief cameo. Padme doing nothing except sitting around being pregnant.
I have to say something about the political plot. One thing that infuriated me about reviews of Episodes One and Two were that suddenly, for some reason, political intrigue was no longer an acceptable plot in a movie, even an action movie. Far more interesting to me than the fall of Anakin Skywalker was the rise of Palpatine, and how he single-handedly turned a democratic Republic into an Empire. The political maneuvering, the setting of the Republic against itself, and the use of fear to force the Senate into compromising itself was quite interesting to me, and unlike nearly every critic, I would have liked to have seen more of it. Padme’s leaden quote about “This is how Democracy dies…in thunderous applause” would have carried a little more weight if we’d seen her — or anyone — trying to do something about it other than talking.
Maybe that was the point. It’s hard to say, since my problem is that the viewer is required to draw most of the lines himself and hope that was the intention. It’s one thing to trust the viewer to make connections without having to explicitly point them out, but another to expect him to do so because you can’t waste valuable time when instead you can be making elevators go up and down and up and down and…
I know I’m coming off unduly harsh. I told some friends that, if I were the type to give letter grades to movies, I’d give “Revenge” a C+, and they’re pretty horrified by that. I guess my problem is that I can’t detach it from Episodes One and Two, both of which fell completely flat for me. As I said earlier, I think there’s a good trilogy in there. I just think you have to do more work than you should to excavate it from the rest. And I think that when you have 6.5 hours of film, and yet the main story you’re telling doesn’t really take place until the final 45 minutes, something has gone wrong. Maybe I need to see it again, get myself into the zone, and appreciate it simply for what it is rather than for what I think it should be. Or maybe Lucas finally succeeded in killing my interest in his universe. Either way, I plan to think about it, put my money where my mouth is, and figure out how I would have done the Prequels instead. I’m sure none of you can wait.
One final note: Anyone out there with thoughts of watching the story in numerical order rather than release order should reconsider. The story just doesn’t work that way. Every single surprise, major and minor, in Episodes Four through Six are spoiled by Episodes One through Three. Honestly, the best way to watch them might be in this order: 4-5-1-2-3-6. Set up Luke, introduce Vader, have them confront each other and introduce Yoda and the Emperor, then flash back to the beginning to see how Vader and Palpatine got where they are, then go back to the later story to see the final fate of Vader and Palpatine. That way, there’s really only one spoiled surprise, and that’s Leia, but that’s no big deal.