Flashing back a couple of decades and you’ll find the three of us gathered around the TV watching the credits roll on the new video of Episode IV: A New Hope. When the final name had scrolled upwards and the tape stopped it took us exactly three seconds to hit the rewind button and start it all over again. It was the defining film of our childhood and though we had no idea how big an impact it was having we knew, with a blissful unquestioning certainty, that here we had something truly special.
The world that flashed before our eyes was exciting, alien, morally uncomplicated and unabashedly heroic. Subsequent episodes in the original trilogy expanded the world and we became more entrenched in it, and at the final moments of Return of the Jedi, Ewok singsong aside, we were done and happy to be so.
Back to the cinema in 2005, with the recent double whammy of Prequel disappointment still smarting we watched the lights go down and hoped that our faith had not been misplaced.
It didn’t start well.
An enormous space battle opened the film, the likes of which we have never seen with hundreds of ships zipping to and fro avoiding mile wide laser blasts and swarms of fighters peppering the skyies above Coruscant with laser fire. It looked amazing, but had one fatal flaw. Despite the technical excellence here I had no idea who is fighting who, or why they are carving large chunks out of each other. During the rescue of the kidnapped Palpatine Count Dooku is dispatched by Anakin in perhaps the most uninspired way possible – the Dark Lord may as well have tripped on his robes and fallen down a flight of stairs. It was a shaky start and one which suggested that Lucas was keen to tie up loose ends in the most perfunctory way possible. But this was meant to be the end, with Anakin’s downfall leading to the thrilling final duel between Master and Apprentice which would lead to the rebirth of this petulant kid from Tattooine as the most feared warrior in the galaxy.
This was something Lucas almost got right. This scene here…
with Palpatine seducing Anakin to moral spasms that would lead to his fall to the dark side is a curious one. Ian McDiarmid is great fun, elongated the bizarre tale of Darth Plagueis and his death-defying forcery to suitably operatic heights while the-boy-who-would-be-Vader barely comprehending its not so subtle agenda. Once revealed as a Dark Lord of the Sith by Samuel L. Jackson and his fellow Jedi they are quickly dispatched by Palpatine and with the various battles raging on many different worlds Anakin stumbles into accepting his fate as a servant of evil, all because he has some dream about Padme dying in childbirth.
Then this happened.
A scene we really, didn’t need to see. He’s a bastard – we get it. That little kid can’t act for toffee but when he shudders as Darth KidKiller ignites his lightsaber it gets me every time. Even so this was a strange moment and an unnecessary one. I don’t buy it at all. If you want to serve evil to save the life of your pregnant wife why does it makes sense to kill children, surely destroying their Jedi teachers is enough. This is an ugly side effect of not having a solid foundation on which to base the downfall of Anakin.
Moving on, this then happened.
And then this.
And finally this.
And we were back on the Tantive IV with the Jedi all but wiped out and Luke and Leia born and hidden from the newly besuited Vader. Bizarrely the entire visual landscape changes to evoke the original Star Wars film with bad hairstyles and Imperial officers in their grey outfits and silly hats. It seemed as if Lucas had slotted everything into place by taking a pair of scissors to the pieces of the puzzle and while the story was brought full circle it falls short of providing a logical and believable narrative. Anakin’s turn to the dark side was incredibly confused and made him out to be a bit of an idiot. All this promise lost in a haze of CGI and dreary political mechanics. But there was one moment that got me.
Having gone through the convoluted final duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin we have a legless Skywalker sliding into the lava and Ewan McGregor says the line:
“You were my brother Anakin. I loved you.”
That line saved the scene for me. It almost saved the whole damn prequel trilogy and it still gives me chills when I hear it. So much emotion in such a few words – emotion that is otherwise completely absent from the three films. I’m not ashamed to admit that there was a tear welling in my eye when I heard that for the first time. It is a line that strikes directly at the hearts of the young boys who sat watched the original trilogy, whose imaginations were afire with the mysterious Clone Wars and the days before the Empire. After nearly six hours of clinical plotting and bloodless emotional journeys we have a moment of passion and it is like a bolt of lightning in an otherwise pitch black night. Sadly that feeling was eclipsed by the moment Vader yelled ‘Noooooooooo’ and then a few minutes later we were done, it was over.
It’s hard to say where it went wrong, there are so many potential culprits but I have the feeling that if Lucas had a few more people challenging his ideas then we might have a more satisfying trilogy. It remains a difficult film to like, and as an accolade ‘Best of the Prequels’ is akin to ‘the mildest dose of Plague’, but it marked the end of an era, one which began in a long time ago and captured and informed our imaginations for years.