I was twelve years old when Return of the Jedi came out, and that made all the difference. Had I been a year or two older, the Ewoks would have bothered me. Had I been a little less naive or credulous, I wouldn’t have believed to the depths of my being, as I did, that Luke might turn to the Dark Side, that the Emperor might win, and that it could all go to hell. As it was, I believed it was possible, and I thought the Ewoks were fine, so when they won the fight on the ground and when Darth Vader rose up to toss the Emperor into the pit, it was, for me, an absolutely perfect ending to the best story ever told.
And it’s been all downhill from there, one way or another. The films haven’t held up in subsequent viewings through the years—how could they? But if they lost their lustre, it wasn’t enough for me to lose my optimism about the prequel trilogy. I sat down to see The Phantom Menace on opening night with childhood friends, full of optimism and excitement.
Well, yeah, we all know how that went.
Didn’t stop me from showing up early on opening night for Attack of the Clones, though! I knew it wasn’t likely to be any better, but I held out a candle of hope.
You’d think I would have learned by now. But that place that Star Wars holds in my childhood is simply too strong. For better or worse, it’s a building block of my psyche, and so I found my ears perking to the buzz about Revenge of the Sith and, sure enough, found myself sitting in a theater last night, with butterflies in my stomach as the words “A long, long time ago . . .” appeared on the screen.
(You already know how the story goes, so whether what follows includes spoilers is open to interpretation. But you’ve been warned.)
It’s like you’ve heard: Episode III is better than I and II, but not capital-G Good. It has a stronger narrative thread holding it together, and some really great action sequences, but the dialogue is still abysmal, and Natalie and Ewan’s acting chops can’t salvage the lines, and Hayden doesn’t even having acting chops to begin with. The biggest disappointment is that Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side isn’t convincing enough, and so those first few scenes when he’s turned all bad-ass don’t have they full impact they should.
You may have heard about the political content of the film—there’s a lot of talk about how liberty ends to the sounds of applause, and Palpatine gobbling up power all in the name of peace and security, and Obi-Wan’s line about how it is only the Sith who speak in absolutes. It’s there, and it’s rather ham-handed, so the fact that I found it occasionally refreshing probably speaks more to the ham-handed way all the movie’s themes were dealth with than anything else. I doubt it will occur to the people to whom Lucas is directing these jabs that they’re the targets, in any case.
There’s something a little disturbing about the “he did it all for love” tack that the film ultimately takes with Anakin’s descent. The whole love vs. Jedi Code thing works best if there’s a genuine tension there: Yoda’s right that to do this job best you’ve got to be free from obligations and distractions, but at what point does separating yourself from them take away what makes you human? In IV-VI this is handled rather well: Yoda wants Luke to stay and finish his training and leave his friends to die, but Luke ultimately comes to rely on both the love his friends and on the familial bond with his father—and, in the end, this turns out be the right course. But for Anakin this over-attachment ends up working all to the bad. It would have been better if his descent had also been tied to Palpatine’s line about power—if he had become so convinced that it was necessary to keep it from others that he found himself all-too willingly grabbing it himself, all the whole oblivious to the hypocrisy and contradiction inherent in what he was doing.
The role of the Jedi Council in all of this is an interesting one that doesn’t get explored enough: Yoda’s terrible miscalculation in bringing in the clone troops in Episode II. The questionable wisdom of the emotionless asceticism of the Jedi Code. The fact that, while Palpatine’s rumors about the Council’s thirst for power are clearly a lie, it’s one that works because it contains a germ of truth. It’s all there, but it never gets confronted, either situationally or in dialogue, in way that gives it teeth.
There should have been a bunch of serialized movies just about good ol’ Obi-Wan, gettin’ in adventures. Ewan Macgregor carries the role well, with just the right balance of adventuresome spirit and reserved Jedi wisdom. His chase of General Grievous in Episode III is great, pulpy action fun, and we could have done with more of that.
Giving Chewbacca a cameo was fine, but if they were going to bring him up at all they at least should have given us another beat later in the movie showing him getting taken into slavery.
And would it have killed them to get Liam Neeson back for a quick cameo as a Force ghost in order to drive home that that’s how Obi-Wan learns that trick, instead of shoehorning it into a piece of dialogue in the final moments of the film?
The climactic battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin was the high point of the film. By that time we’ve seen Anakin slicing innocents enough that his evil is believable. This is a battle than an entire generation of people my age have imagined on their own for twenty years, and, up against that high standard, it didn’t disappoint. In particular Obi-Wan’s “I failed you” speech after besting his pupil is one of the few bits of dialogue in the movie that works, and works well.
I’ve often found myself defending these prequel movies, even though I’ve found them all tremendously disappointing, mainly because other people still seem to find them worse than they are. Here’s my laundry list of positives and explanations, all of which hold true for Episode III:
1. Star Wars has always been one part space fantasy and one part pulp, and has never been anything else. So, while you may find the name “Count Dooku” stupid, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s perfectly appropriate and in-genre for what these films set out to be. Same goes for the titles of the movies, and the antics of that slippery General Grievous, and a bunch of other stuff.
2. There is a whole lot that is visually compelling in these films. This goes from everything from basic visual design to frame composition to the pacing and editing of the action sequences. I’d love to see a cut of them with the music and sound effects left in but all the dialogue taken out. That would spare us all the groaners, to be sure, but more to the point, enough is conveyed visually that the narrative thread would still be maintained and the films would still be engaging—probably more so.
3. The failures of the films are failures of execution in the particulars. In better hands, the conflict between’s Anakin’s love and his duty, played out against a backdrop of political intrigue and the tension between the overzealous rigidity of the Jedi Council and the slippery machinations of the Sith, could have produced a nuanced, suspenseful, emotionally gripping tale. If I may get all Russian formalist-y for a moment, the fabula of the prequel trilogy—the setting, the characters, the events—aren’t broken, but the sjuzet—the actual arrangement of story elements, the way it’s told—is where the problem lies.
Here’s an encouraging thought: the amount of time that I’ve spent over the years watching Star Wars movies, thinking about them, and talking about them, is as nothing compared to the time I’ve spent inventing stories that inhabit the Star Wars universe. This goes all the way from playing with plastic figurines in the sandbox as a child to marathon collaborative storytelling efforts using the Star Wards roleplaying game in high school and college. And I’m hardly unusual in this respect. Star Wars ultimately means a lot more as a setting, a springboard, a robust fantasy world, than it does as twelve-odd hours of film. There’s no shortage of folks with a knack for storytelling and filmmaking who know and understand and love this world, even now. If George Lucas is smart, he’ll let some of those people create Episodes VII, VIII, and IX on his behalf. Then, like Anakin’s story, his own life’s work will have a chance of ending with redemption.