Come to the Dark Side

What a strange experience that was.

I’ve just come back from Episode III, after spending half of yesterday reading huge amounts of Star Wars analysis at Andrew Rilstone’s site (and Lord of the Rings analysis, and Doctor Who analysis, &c.), which if you have any interest in the subject I’d urge you to read: his conclusion is one of the best things I’ve read about the whole phenomenon in the past twenty-seven years. I don’t think it’s a betrayal of the 12-year-old self who was overwhelmed by The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 to agree with his argument that all of the sequels and prequels, even that one (which improved on the original in so many respects), have undermined the power of the original Star Wars—not A New Hope, not Episode IV, but Star Wars—a movie that might otherwise stand tall today as the greatest B-movie ever, styrofoam sets and styrofoam acting and all. Not as badly as The Matrix was undermined by its sequel, mind you (I still haven’t even seen the third one), but undermined nonetheless.

And yet. Given that the sequel train left the galactic corral a long time ago, and that a cliff-hanger episode V demands an episode VI and ultimately I, II, and III, it hasn’t turned out so badly. I never hated The Phantom Menace with a passion, because I’d already had my moment of revelation—that “My God, Star Wars is a corny B-movie” moment—watching the Special Edition re-releases in 1997, years after I’d seen the originals. So the fact that Menace was a corny B-movie (on a much bigger budget) seemed in keeping with tradition. I saw it twice, and then more or less forgot about it until Attack of the Clones. I thought that one was fine, too, in the “y’know” sense, not the “so” sense. It had some good stuff in it, and it had some middling stuff... and it had the Ani/Amidala love scene.

And so I forgot about it again, even forgetting to check out the Episode III trailer until last week, only getting swept up in the fascination once more in the past 48 hours. The generally positive reviews gave me new hope, while Anthony Lane’s debunking kept it in check. After reading Andrew Rilstone’s requiem for a lost original, I had a compelling urge to see the new one, now, so this morning I dragged myself along to a 9 a.m. screening.

For perhaps two-thirds of the movie, my generally benign but unexcited response to the prequels remained intact. It was entertaining, it didn’t drag too badly, it looked impressive (though too cluttered, as all of them have been), and it had corny dialogue.

And then the last half hour overwhelmed me, in a way that no instalment has since Darth Vader reached out his hand to Luke in Empire. Because nothing prepares you for the moment when that helmet clamps onto Vader’s scorched head—and everything has prepared you for it.

I could think about nothing else for an hour afterwards. Five minutes. Five minutes of genuine mythic power. Was it worth two somewhat disappointing instalments and most of a third to get there? Not to mention the Ewoks, the he’s-my-fathers, she’s-my-sisters, the silly merchandising and air of nostalgic Gen-X indulgence and all the rest? Yes, it probably was. The best you can hope for in any movie is five minutes like that.

Here’s the strange part: if Ani hadn’t been an annoying, petulant youth in II and most of III, it wouldn’t have worked. If Amidala hadn’t been an underdeveloped cipher throughout, it wouldn’t have worked. An Amidala with real grit would never have hooked up with a whiny brat. A well-rounded, truly appealing Anakin would never have turned to the Dark Side. Short of brainwashing, only a thoroughly unattractive personality would let himself become Darth Vader. Any series of films about the young Vader and the woman who loved him was bound to test our patience and sympathies. It couldn’t have been any other way; not believably, anyway. But this Anakin, yes, I can see how he would have turned.

Rilstone suggested that a better series of prequels would have focussed on a whole new set of characters and put all of this exposition into the background. In one sense, he’s right; this series has been like a dramatization of history, as if Peter Jackson followed The Lord of the Rings with a three-part adaptation of The Silmarillion.

But I’m thinking now that Anakin’s journey to the Dark Side was the only prequel ever really worth telling. The only important unanswered question at the end of Return of the Jedi was “How did that kindly old man let himself get turned into Lord Bastard in his big black Bastard Suit in the first place?” It’s not like just anyone who gets scarred for life in battle turns evil.

Nope. Only the immature, emotionally stunted ones do.

20 May 2005 · Film

Thanks for a balanced, heartfelt review!

Added by Dom on 22 May 2005.

I liked this. I liked RotS, it was entertaining and brought the series back into form, although I was surprised at how brutal certain aspects of it were, the dispatching of Dooku, and of course Order 66, but it couldn't have been any other way.

Though the moment that really got me was the very last scene, when baby Luke is dropped off with his uncle and aunt, and you know how that ended twenty years down the track.

Added by Graham on 23 May 2005.

I don't know... Luke almost giving into his hate in RotJ, when the emperor was about to destroy everything and everyone he held dear, struck me as a more real reason to give in to the hate and power of the dark side than anything in RotS.

Added by MrLefty on 24 May 2005.

In light of Anakin's brutality in slaying the halflings, the infamous Greedo Shoots First touch-up to make Han Solo a more nicer and more "family friendly" character strikes me as hypocritical in the extreme.

All things considered however, I enjoyed the flick. I actually had fun, largely because my expectations were as low as they could go.

Added by ed on 25 May 2005.