I went to go see Episode III last night, at the midnight show. As usual, going at midnight is fun. Lots of fans, lots of anticipation. This is likely the last time we’ll be seeing a new Star Wars movie on the big screen.
It was also Lucas’ last chance to get it right. The best Star Wars movie, by far, was The Empire Strikes Back, known otherwise as Episode V. Why the best? Because it was a great story, it deepened the characters and their relationships. And it was only successful at that because Lucas didn’t direct it. Lucas nearly killed himself making the original Star Wars (now known as Episode IV), and knew he needed to stay out of the director’s chair to keep himself alive. So he turned to one of his trusted film professors.
Unfortunately, he didn’t learn from that success, and he certainly didn’t learn enough from his mentor in terms of dramatic directing.
Note: if you haven’t seen Episode III yet, you might want to wait to read the rest. Or go ahead, I don’t care. I’m not going to be giving away much, and if you really cared about spoilers anyway, you’d be in line to see the movie by now (5:00 pm on opening day).
Lucas has developed a reputation for changing things, but perhaps one of his boldest changes came when he described the original Star Wars Trilogy as being about Anakin Skywalker, not Luke, Leia, and Han. As he was preparing to announce the prequel trilogy (which is now complete), he wanted to assure us that it was always supposed to be about Anakin, his rise, his fall, and his redemption.
Fine, we can understand and accept that, and the desire to go back and tell the story of Anakin’s rise and fall. After all, we all wanted more Star Wars.
Lucas proved with Episode I and II that he simply can’t direct dramatic sequences. The scene at the Skywalker home in Episode I around the table is one of the more painful scenes in Episode I. But we all had this feeling that maybe it was just Jake Lloyd (the actor for the 9-year-old Anakin in Episode I) — kid actors can be very difficult to work with. But even what were supposed to be heartfelt scenes with only adult actors seemed dry and contrived — such as Obi-Wan Kenobi’s (Ewan McGregor) apology to his master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) about his disrespectful comments.
Episode II didn’t improve anything. If anything, it only more deeply revealed Lucas’ incapability in the dramatic direction department. The entire love story between the 19-year-old Anakin (now played by Hayden Christensen) and Padme (Natalie Portman) simply wasn’t in the same league as the romance between Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) in The Empire Strikes Back.
Now, finally Episode III is out, and Lucas’ ineptitude is complete.
The only reason to film Episodes I-III were to see Anakin Skywalker turn into Darth Vader. We all wanted to know (or were supposed to want to know): how did it happen? In Episode III, the moment we’ve been waiting 28 years for was simply uneventful. The most pivotal moment in the entire saga, and it ends up playing out more or less like this: oh, I guess I’ll be a Sith now. There’s simply no drama to the moment. The setup — the events leading up to that point — was good. He’s confused, he doesn’t know who to trust, and he’s desperately afraid of losing the one person he cares about the most. Everything after that point was pretty good — his confrontation with Obi-Wan towards the end of the movie was nearly everything I wanted it to be. But the turning point itself was nothing worth remembering. It should have been a moment on par with “I am your father” from The Empire Strikes Back, but instead of going into the annals of film history as that scene has, it will simply pass into obscurity, except possibly as a footnote for how a great opportunity was wasted in an otherwise good film.
Everything in the prequels up to that point was successful in terms of setting up how Anakin was at the edge of a cliff. But there was never anything truly impacting about how he fell off that cliff and plunged into darkness. A good director would have fixed that with a few small changes, a heightened sense of drama, and a better ability to tell a story. It’s too bad Lucas didn’t learn enough from his success with the original Star Wars Trilogy to hire better directors for the prequel trilogy. But hey, not all movie franchises can live up to expectations like the Lord of the Rings series did.