Author’s note: Dear readers, please bear in mind while reading this retrospective, that I have an enduring love of Star Wars, and an unshakable affection and admiration for George Lucas despite some of the following text perhaps appearing to sound a little to the contrary.
It is six years on from the theatrical release of Episode III, and it’s an unfortunate truth that many once avid Star Wars fans have found themselves reluctantly disenfranchised from the universe George Lucas created for them. Most feel angry, some feel abandoned and yet others; utterly betrayed. Still others are kind of shellshocked and adopt a mournful, philosophical attitude about a film series that has changed beyond their recognition and sadly become no longer relevant to them. They hold dear some idealised, romantic notion of what they believe Star Wars was, or what it was supposed to be, lost forever. Emotions certainly run high, and those who are old enough to have witnessed the first film in 1977 (myself included), are perhaps among the worst affected, but it’s by no means limited to that single demographic.
What the hell happened?
I’m not really sure, and I’m certainly not here to try and tackle that question head on either.
This is after all, a retrospective specifically of Episode III, although obviously the movie does not exist in a vacuum. Regarding Lucas himself; It must be said that never has a successful, popular filmmaker generated such conflicted and passionate emotions in his fans as he. As the creator of Star Wars, we might love the bearded wonder dearly, even when he does things that make us pull our hair out. Star Wars just changed everything, and if you were a certain age, your life simply wasn’t the same once you’d seen it. Yet as the continued architect of the saga, many of us have had significant negative reactions to the direction he has taken, and the manner in which he has chosen to present them. Many simply blame the prequel trilogy; but I would contend that the rot (if you indeed see it as such), actually set in with Return Of The Jedi. Well, that particular episode will be Steven’s responsibility to comment on. For now, let us hop back to 2005 and have another look at Revenge Of The Sith.
With this, the final instalment, many old fans keenly felt a gravitas in the moment. A sense that, despite the disappointments of the past; we would all take a punt one last time and dare to hold out hope that Lucas would finally give us a new Star Wars movie truly worthy of the best of its forebears.
This is my take on it, and apologies in advance, as I feel this is gonna be quite the epic.
Episode III is where the prequel trilogy forms the final link in the saga, and chronicles the events that lead to the fall of the old republic, the birth of the Empire, and most tragically of all; the seduction, corruption and descent of Anakin Skywalker from Jedi Knight to Sith Lord, the genesis if you like, of Darth Vader.
In so doing, the series is remoulded into something of a six movie Anakin Skywalker redemption tale. Star Wars: The Rise, Fall and eventual Redemption of Anakin (if you like). Hmm, catchy title.
When the prequel trilogies were announced, it was clear that of the three movies, it was gonna be Episode III that would be the most pivotal, the most interesting and in many ways, the one all existing Star Wars fans will be itching to see the most.
And it was exactly thus.
Episode I had the kudos of being the first proper new Star Wars movie in sixteen years, and traded very heavily on that fact, as well as the massive good will and rabid hunger for new content that had been building all that time. The movie, in my opinion was otherwise a slightly soulless, vanilla affair at best. There was the excellently conceived, but criminally underused and prematurely dispatched Darth Maul, and the equally impressive, kinetic Lightsaber battle he has with Kenobi and Qui Gon Jin. And that’s kind of it. Embargoes, blockades and hideously precocious little boys shouting “yippee” but managing to destroy important control ships don’t exactly set the pulse a racing, and don’t get me started on idiotic “roger roger” battle droids, Wacky Races pod race characters, midichlorians or Jar Jar Binks. No, The Phantom Menace had very occasional flashes of inspiration, but not nearly enough to save it from being an overall disappointment.
Episode II was…well… Episode II, you know, in this context; it’s the awkward middle child. It served mainly to establish the now Padawan Anakin’s fragile nature, introduce a new (quite unbelievably rubbish) Sith villain in the ancient shape of Count Dooku, and initiate the much talked about Clone Wars. It also moved the new series a whole heap further into an all encompassing, and unconvincing over CG realised look. Oh and it had a subtitle so bad that it made you cry inside just saying it. Honestly George, we know you love your cheesy Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers pulp serials and stuff, but Attack Of The Clones? Really?
Episode III on the other hand, promised more than the other two combined, as it had the best, most dynamic raw material to work with in terms of plot and story potential.
Having been none too impressed with the inexplicably spoiled and pouting Anakin Skywalker of Episode II, I was actually pleasantly surprised when I first saw the promo shots of Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor kitted out as they were to appear in Episode III. It was only three years since we last saw him, but he seemed to have done some major growing up, and was passing through that incredibly awkward neither fish nor foul stage young male actors have to go through before truly appearing convincing on film as grown men. This was a good omen, and was the first of several things that, for me at least boded well for the movie (not the least of which was the fact that we were to FINALLY get a genuinely cool title). Revenge Of The Sith was a name that sounded good and didn’t make you die a little every time you said it.
The next things I noticed in the promo merch’ that began to appear was Anakin and Obi Wan’s Lightsabers. Now, I apologise for launching into a particularly nerdy fanboy bit right now, but it probably won’t be the last time I do it so you better just try and go with the flow.
Ok, as we all know, one of the things Lucas has obviously really enjoyed while making the prequel trilogy is a sort of reverse engineering of key components from the original movies, and creating echoes or thematic leitmotifs all over the place. He LOVES doing this. His insistence on having someone in every movie say “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” is a prime example of his desire to create a certain type of almost musical homogeny. This sensibility encompasses the design of just about everything, including weapons. When it comes to the Lightsabers, the most freedom the prequel trilogy designers ever had was right at the beginning in Episode I. They were stunningly beautiful original designs that certainly paid homage to established traits, but also had a unique and well conceived look of their own. In Episode II however, young Anakin’s saber was not of that ilk. Rather it was specifically styled to be very reminiscent of Darth Vader’s weapon from the original trilogy. It’s one of those little Lucas riffs that serves to subconsciously link Anakin to Vader, even though you barely see either sabers on film.
By the time we get to Episode III though, continuity comes in to play so things flow nicely into what was established in Episode IV. In terms of Lightsabers, that means it makes sense for Kenobi to wield an ‘as new’ version of the rusty old saber he is seen wielding in Episode IV. More crucially however; Anakin absolutely MUST wield the same saber that Kenobi gives to Luke in Episode IV (to make the whole “This was your father’s Lightsaber” bit work). Anyway, it was a pleasant bit of fanboy nerd continuity and attention to detail that those sabers on the Episode III promos were the correct designs (save for a little artistic licence in the finer details). Little did I know that Lucas would go on to create a screenplay in Episode III that wouldn’t mesh at all with certain established ‘facts’ from the original movies, and effectively turns even more of Sir Alec GuInness’ dialogue to Luke in Episode IV into what can at best be described as ‘severe factual inaccuracies’ regarding his father, the Lightsaber and pretty much everything else.
Anyway, back up a bit, and in the lead up to Episode III’s release, I was actually feeling pretty good about it. Interviews with Lucas indicated that by its very nature, the movie was going to be much darker and possibly even carry a ’15’ certificate in the UK (this was pure hyperbole of course, and never gonna happen), but it was at least in keeping with the darker nature of the material. I actually succumbed to insatiable curiosity and bought a hardback copy of the novelisation before the movie’s release. The book was indeed dark, violent and brutal, which was encouraging even though I naturally assumed the movie would dial it down a good few notches.
Then came the first sign that perhaps all was not going to go quite as well as I’d hoped. I bought the DVD box set of the original trilogy movies which contained some sneak peeks of Episode III. One of the featurettes concerned the return to our screens for the first time since 1983 of a certain heavy breathing Sith Lord.
For some reason best known to George Lucas, the decision was made to allow Hayden Christensen to actually play the suited and booted Vader as we know and love him.
Hmmm… Christensen actually ‘being’ the guy in the suit.
Hmmm… This must surely have been a massive honour for the actor (although no doubt a huge snub, and crushing disappointment for original suit guy, Dave Prowse), and I guess George must have weighed up the pros and cons and in his infinite wisdom; given Christensen the green light. Trouble is, Christensen is just a shade over 6′ 1″ and all of maybe 175 pounds at the most. Dave Prowse was 6′ 5″ and a bodybuilder of easily 240+ fighting fit pounds. Now I know they can do wonders with boot ‘lifts’ and ‘muscle suits’ etc, but there just ain’t no way Christensen can convey anywhere near the same power and sheer overwhelming presence that Prowse’s natural physicality had built right in. And thus it was with great furrows of brow and more than a little disbelief that I looked upon Christensen in the new Vader suit and was unpleasantly reminded of Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet. It’s frankly a ridiculous sell, and visual comparisons between the imposing, hulking Vader of Prowse, and the big head, little body, skinny kid in a comedy Vader suit just leave one speechless. The fact that Lucas accepted this obvious compromise beggars belief, and my high hopes for the new movie took a little knock that day. I would soon find out that the film’s principal Vader scene would turn out to be a very odd and polarising one indeed. A scene that elicits a shudder of embarrassed disbelief even now, and an entirely inappropriate gut laugh when I watched the movie again before commencing this tome. I guess I might explain more later on if there’s time.
As I said, the movie chronicles the end game in the Clone Wars. A conflict entirely designed, planned and executed via the exquisite manipulation and nefarious machinations of Palpatine/Darth Sidious. The goal being to bring about the end of the Republic, establish a new dictatorial Empire with himself as supreme ruler, and in the process; completely destroy the Jedi order. It’s an amazing feat, and works like a charm. By the end of the movie, the new Empire has been ushered in, and of the Jedi; perhaps (it’s not clear), only Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi remain. As the icing on the cake, Sidious finally sees all the years of grooming, manipulation and seduction of Anakin Skywalker finally bear fruit, with the fragile Jedi turning to the dark side, assuming the Sith persona of Darth Vader and becoming the Emperor’s new apprentice.
The movie ends with the birth of Luke and Leia and the setting up of the various dramatic situations that we will next encounter in Episode IV.
The movie indulges Lucas’ now fully established tendency to over rely on CG environments and characters and it drives people like me crazy. I’m not sure why he ever went down such a seemingly ‘technology for technology’s sake’ movie making route. Maybe it’s just in his DNA to try and push boundaries even when there are convincing arguments to refrain, but the net result is an overall look that’s closer to modern video games than anything resembling movies, and desperately unsatisfying it is too.
Lucas is also a digital manipulation demon. Nothing is sacred, and he can (and does) digitally mix and match elements (including people) to his little heart’s content until he arrives at a composite he likes. I’m no Luddite or backward technophobe but there’s something about this approach, coupled with the aforementioned less than fully convincing CG environments that serve to generate a certain ersatz feel to the proceedings, and an unwelcome sense of remote detachment from characters and situations we would otherwise want to care about (an awkward and lacklustre script doesn’t help in this respect). For me, CG imagery in film is an exquisite balancing act, and works best when enhancing ‘real’ ‘in camera’ elements (actors, sets and models etc). Episode III suffers from a weird kind of reversal of this mantra I.e. the real bits of set, or parts of vehicles etc are there to enhance the CG and all but disappear, blending in to the digital vista. This would be more acceptable if the end result didn’t look so video game like and artificial, but it does. Add in completely CG rendered clone troopers, principal baddies, and tiny green Jedi masters and the photorealism takes a knock my suspension of disbelief just can’t cope with.
I think that with Episodes II and III in particular; Lucas’ reach finally outstrips his grasp. The desire to create quite so many wondrous shots seems to overwhelm ILM’s ability to deliver them all as convincingly as they could if there were less of them. I mean, if you have a scene with Kenobi and two clone troopers, wouldn’t it have been altogether better to just make two real suits? Why the hell do they have to be bloody CG?
If, up until now, it has sounded like I’m a paid up member of those that despise Lucas and the prequel movies and dismiss them as so much Bantha fodder, then I apologise. I don’t hate the prequels, and as I said at the beginning; I still love old beardy. In fact, unlike many fans of my generation, I do understand the argument put forth that it’s unrealistic to expect these movies to be tailored to appeal to the now thirty and forty something audience that saw the original three. I do get that. My niece was six when Episode III came out, but she was already completely hooked and nutty about Star Wars. Naturally, her perspective and appreciation of the movies was completely different to mine, and made no real distinction between any of the episodes. I could see that the prequels had worked a similar magic on her as the original movies had on me, and that’s great. She has rather grown out of it now, but I suspect she will always have an affection for Star Wars that no amount of moaning about the prequels from old farts like me could (or bloody well should) affect.
That being said, one of the best things about the original trilogy (particularly Episodes IV and V) is that although they appealed to kids just as much as the prequels did; they managed to do it without compromising too heavily on their simultaneous appeal to adults. This point is paramount to understanding why the prequels suffer in the eyes of so many adult fans. This deliberate refocusing and narrowing down of the target age range is so much more pronounced.
Anyway, back to Episode III, re-watching It, I am still happy to consider it (as I was at the time), the best of the prequels, but in saying that, I feel I’m damning with faint praise somehow.
I am once again dumfounded at its relentless lightweight, juvenile and comedic beats, and its staggering stupidity in places. Maybe Lucas was worried about the darker segments and chose to add the slapstick etc to balance things out. I don’t think it works very well though. We really don’t need battle droids to try and be either funny, or as completely inept and stooge like as they are. Worse, we could really have done with a General Greivous that was properly ruthless and menacing, rather than the ineffectual, cowardly and asthmatic CG creation of the movie. Strangely enough, Grievous’ depiction in the Clone Wars animated series is miles better, and his character commands a lot more respect and fear. He’s pretty nasty and brutal in the book too, so I wonder what gives? The whole time Grievous is onscreen, weezing, coughing, throwing subordinates in between himself and the Jedi or just plain running away, I could not help but think of the truly menacing robot ‘Maximilian’ from Disney’s ‘The Black Hole‘ – That’s how to make a robot scare the pants out of little kids without having to be over explicit George, take note.
Ok so I don’t want to labour this retro more than I have to, but the overall feeling from watching it again is that there are some very good bits of business, and some truly terrible ones. On the good side of the ledger is the infamous ‘Order 66’ montage, which is great. But it only works if you leave your brain back at the Cantina. You have to accept that small squads of clone troopers could surprise, overpower and kill EVERY Jedi master out in the field. Aren’t the Jedi supposed to be ‘force aware’? Do you really think any battle seasoned Jedi master couldn’t repel any amount of blaster fire from a bunch of damn clones? They don’t have any trouble slicing through legions of battle droids without even breaking a sweat dammit. The montage scene plays out and I allow myself to be swept along with the drama of it, but deep down, my inner logical fanboy is screaming “Use the bloody force you imbeciles, what the hell are you doing? Slice and Dice these suckas!!!!” It’s an enjoyable dramatic scene, but a MAJOR contrivance nonetheless.
Forgetting for a moment that in the final reckoning; Anakin doesn’t so much ‘turn’ to the dark side, as sort of ‘snap’ instantly, hands down best scene in the movie is Anakin (now anointed as Vader), entering the Jedi temple and happening upon a roomful of scared younglings. The bravest little boy, trusting Anakin; breaks cover and asks him what they are going to do? And as an emotive and dramatic descending Lydian cadence swells in the music track, we see a terrific shot from low behind Vader’s left of the pensive little boy, and then as the Sith lord’s saber ignites in answer to the question, diagonally dividing the frame in two; the boy visibly jumps in fright. It’s quite obviously a ‘real’ reaction too, that kid is not acting. It’s very powerful, and one’s mind is then left to fill in the horror of what happened next. In fact the scene always moved me to tears, and even now even more so since having kids of my own, cliche or not. The movie peaks right there. If the whole film had been shot with the dramatic power, depth of feel and imaginative framing of that one scene; it might have elevated Episode III into really rarified air. Instead, we get mystifyingly ineffective business like Vader’s visit to Mustafar to slaughter all the separatist leaders. As described in the book; this scene is brutal, ruthless and sadistically unpleasant. The movie version plays out with pretty much zero drama or tension. Anakin/Vader calmly walks around cutting people down, and none of the remaining leaders really react in a believably hysterical way at the prospect of being sabered to pieces. As a result; one cares not a jot for any of them (particularly the CG realised ones). Personally, I’d be climbing the frickin’ walls trying to get away.
Ultimately it’s a shame that Lucas didn’t have the courage to make the movie truly dark, as it certainly had the potential. I guess his reasoning has merit, and we wouldn’t want to terrify the younger kids. But I can’t help feeling there was a better middle ground to be had than the one we got, even accepting all the other things I’ve mentioned.
Sometimes it’s the little things. I wonder why, for example upon seeing for himself the video ‘evidence’ of Anakin slaying all the younglings; Kenobi wasn’t permitted license to emote some real heartbreak, pain and anguish (this would connect with how the audience feels, and is fully expecting him to feel too, but we don’t get it). I know he’s trained not to blah blah blah, but considering Lucas just had dozens of ‘trained’ Jedi masters getting easily bumped off by idiot clones just because it suited his purposes in thinning the herd before the end of the movie, you’d think a little latitude with Kenobi’s emotional reaction would be reasonable, but no. I think Lucas missed an opportunity to squeeze out the audience’s emotions more at that moment and really hammer home the magnitude of the evil Anakin has perpetrated. Shame, but it rather sums up the movie’s unwillingness to deliver on its promises.
I said at the beginning of this retro, that it would be epic, and so it is. I apologise for the extended length, and if I tell you that I’ve cut/edited over 600 words OUT of it, perhaps you’ll forgive me, and appreciate my efforts to not keep you a moment longer than need be.
I also said that I would talk about ‘that’ polarising scene with the skinny be-helmeted Sith Lord if we had time….
We don’t, I’m so sorry.
Suffice to say that after Vader asks Palpatine if Padme is alright (which just sounds completely wrong in THAT voice), for no apparent reason; Lucas then uses teen Vader to pay homage to Boris Karloff’s stiff legged monster in Frankenstein when busting free of his shackles.
Why? Dunno, must’ve seemed like a good idea at the time.
Oh yes, and at the same time he decided that what we really need in order to sell the moment is Vader junior screaming “Noooooooooo!!” as he shakes his little fists and the camera pulls out dramatically.
George, please please listen to me, I’m still your friend….
Thank you so much dear reader, for sticking with me to the end…….of the beginning!
Let’s move on then to the beginning…….of the end!