Almost thirty years ago, he strode onto movie theater screens for the first time, a caped, helmeted black knight amid the aftermath of battle on a captured Rebel freighter.
His voice was the rich, powerful baritone of James Earl Jones, but he towered over his fellows like Frankenstein’s monster, for inside the suit was David Prowse, who had played that very creature three years earlier in the last of Hammer’s Frankenstein series, starring Peter Cushing as a twisted Dr. Frankenstein. (No wonder Princess Leia wasn’t surprised to find Cushing here "holding Vader’s leash" as the similarly twisted General Tarkin.)
Like the Wicked Witch of the West, he was evil, pure and simple — a vision as menacing as Dracula and Doctor Doom combined. He easily overwhelmed the old wizard Obi-Wan Kenobi when they clashed later in the film. Three years later, when Luke Skywalker first raised a lightsaber to him in the Cloud City of Bespin in The Empire Strikes Back, it seemed absurd, like a puppy taking on a Bengal tiger.
Yet Darth Vader revealed a twisted humanity in that battle, a human side that suggested that he was more like Frankenstein’s tragic creature after all than Dracula or the Wicked Witch. Luke was devastated by this revelation, yet sensed the humanity in the figure whose name has been interpreted as "dark father." That crisis set the stage for the redemptive climax of the third film, Return of the Jedi, and the series as a whole — a daring twist without parallel in the character-arc of any other similarly iconic evil character.
The new trilogy of Star Wars prequels set out to tell the opposite story: how a former Jedi knight taught by Obi-Wan was seduced by the dark side of the Force and destroyed the Jedi.
The first two prequels met with widespread disappointment,
though I was an enthusiastic proponent of both films. Only now,
with the saga finally complete, do I fully appreciate in
retrospect the extent to which the opportunity of the first two
films was squandered. Yes, I admit it: I was wrong. The scales
have fallen from my eyes. (I thought about writing new reviews of
Episodes I and II, but on rereading them I find that I still
mostly agree with what I wrote at the time, though I have more to
say now, all critical. Instead of revising my reviews, therefore,
I’ve supplemented them with short "final thoughts" sections
Here, suffice to say that in addition to the charmless characterizations and various irritations that left fans dissatisfied, what was most grievously lacking in Episodes I and II was the mythological and archetypal inspirations that made the original trilogy so resonant. The original trilogy was about good and evil, heroism and villainy, discipline and passion, temptation and redemption. By contrast, Episodes I and II are largely about political intrigue and debates, adolescent rebellion and tepid puppy love.
What makes the failure of the first two films so glaring, now, is that with Revenge of the Sith Lucas has finally again tapped into the inspiration of the original trilogy, and created the mythic precursor that he first conceived decades ago. Perhaps he really only had one real Star Wars prequel in him, and didn’t know how to properly set it up with the first two episodes.
It’s a shame, because the failure of Episodes I and II undercuts the power that Revenge of the Sith could have had. The fall of the Jedi ought to have carried the tragic weight of the breaking of the Round Table, if only the first two films had established the Camelot-like glory of the Jedi at the height of their power that might have made us care. Given a different characterization of Anakin Skywalker in the first two films, we could have had the tragic corruption of a great man, rather than the subversion of a darkly petulant youth.
Yet, crippled as he is by the decisions of the first two films, Lucas still manages to invest the final chapter of his sprawling space opera with the grandly operatic spirit of the original trilogy. It’s still cornball, yes, and with all the usual weaknesses. But Episode III at last has heart.
"War!" proclaims the first word of the opening crawl. (About bloody time. Isn’t this series supposed to be called "Star Wars"? How can you have two whole Star Wars films without any war?) At last we get a tantalizing glimpse of Anakin as the "cunning warrior" and "best star pilot in the galaxy" that old Obi-Wan described all the way back in the original Star Wars movie, A New Hope.
The film opens with an extended rescue sequence climaxing with Anakin piloting a spaceship out of orbit for a crash-landing to the planet below, like Lucifer falling from the heavens. By the finale, Anakin’s descent into perdition is complete as — in a sequence rumored for decades — he falls in battle with his mentor Obi-Wan on a volcano planet amid raging rivers of lava, a veritable lake of fire casting a hellish glow over the combatants.
Revenge of the Sith is the first of the prequels that echoes elements in the original trilogy in such a way as to enhance the original films. The extended temptation of Luke Skywalker on the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi becomes more resonant and interesting now that we see how Anakin himself previously played out that same temptation scenario, more than once. In the first of these temptation scenes, Anakin plays out the role of his future son Luke. (In a nice touch, Anakin disarms his Sith opponent and wields the "evil" red lightsaber and his own green Jedi saber simultaneously, echoing the moral conflict within him.) The next time, Anakin finds himself in the same role he himself recapitulates at the very climax of Return of the Jedi.
Lucas has an answer to the mystery of Anakin’s fall — a spiritual failing warned against in many religious traditions, Christian and otherwise — and to the lure of the dark side that is behind his downfall and his insistence in the original series that "You don’t know the power of the dark side!"
Sounding intriguingly like a modernist theologian, the evil future Emperor Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) tells Anakin that those who seek true mastery in the Force must take "a broader view" than the "narrow, dogmatic views of the Jedi," and study the Force in "all its aspects," the dark side as well as the good.
Unfortunately, the allegedly "narrow, dogmatic" Jedi orthodoxy never finds an equally articulate spokesman, not even in Obi-Wan or Yoda. Told by Anakin (in what may be a swipe at George W. Bush) that "If you’re not with me then you’re my enemy," Obi-Wan retorts, "Only a Sith deals in absolutes." (Really? The Jedi rejection of the dark side isn’t absolute?) And Yoda, his speech patterns sounding more convoluted and less sage-like than ever, has a final speech on the Jedi precept of detachment that goes well beyond Christian freedom from excessive attachment into Buddhist impassiveness. Attachment, Yoda teaches, is "a way to the dark side," and our detachment and acceptance of death should be so complete that we shouldn’t even mourn the dead.
The problem with Yoda’s ethic of detachment is that it’s dead contrary to the unabashed humanism with which the whole story ends in Return of the Jedi, where human attachments — filial loyalty, paternal bonds — ultimately save the galaxy, destroy the Sith and the Empire, and redeem Anakin’s lost soul. Yoda and Obi-Wan consistently counsel Luke (and, in the prequels, Anakin) against the very bonds that finally lead to the triumph of good over evil.
In the end, alas, the Jedi do seem too "narrow" and "dogmatic," not the great sages Lucas presumably wanted them to be. Perhaps the "prophecy of the one who will bring balance to the Force" was misinterpreted after all: Perhaps the prophecy was really fulfilled not by Anakin destroying the Sith order, but by Luke humanizing the Jedi ethic.
Characterization, dialogue and acting, which were at their nadir in Episode I and improved modestly in Episode II, take another modest step forward. That is, in Episode II the characters were allowed to have pulses, and in Episode III the pulses actually get raised from time to time. For the first time in the new trilogy, the characters and emotions matter.
At last Amidala and Obi-Wan display genuine feelings for Anakin; their mounting concern, dismay, and finally horror at his downward trajectory is palpable. Hayden Christiansen eventually rises to a credible approximation of Vader’s evil, though not for a second does he cut the figure Prowse did. There’s one wordless scene in which the suited Vader strides across the deck of a ship to stand beside his master, and crosses his arms across his chest. It’s a posture Prowse’s Vader would never have adopted.
Continuity problems mount. The film’s tragic climax blatantly contradicts an important exchange between Luke and Leia in Return of the Jedi, an inconsistency that even children will notice.
Of course, Revenge of the Sith isn’t really for children anyway. It’s the grimmest and darkest of the films, setting the stage for the "New Hope" alluded to in the subtitle of the original Star Wars. The body count is higher than in previous films, and the violence reaches its height in the climactic battle between Obi-Wan and Vader which leaves him "more machine than man," as old Obi-Wan said in Return of the Jedi.
Visually, Revenge of the Sith is the most gorgeous of all the Star Wars films, with stunningly painted dreamscapes and much of the film shot in real or simulated "golden hour" late afternoon lighting, foreshadowing the sun setting on the Republic and the coming night of the Empire. For the moment, the dark side is triumphant… but new hope will dawn again.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.